Election campaigns this year are playing by new rules. The 2016 presidential nominating conventions clearly demonstrated that many voters are profoundly angry with politics as usual. Republicans primary voters bypassed even Tea Party candidates to nominate Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent, won both delegates and platform concessions from Hillary Clinton. The alienated in both parties show deep dissatisfaction with elected officials, whom they view as ineffective and nonresponsive.
At the same time, campaigns have become increasingly expensive. Candidates spend too much of their time raising money. Often, they seek to please potential donors more than their constituents.
The Citizen United and McCutcheon court cases have drastically affected 21st century campaigns. Not only have limits on spending by interest groups been eliminated, but SuperPAC donors remain secret and flood campaigns with “dark money. Our book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century, explains how grassroots campaigns can win despite these obstacles. It also decodes behind the scenes changes in the 2016 elections.
A strong candidate with avid volunteers can still win votes with little money. The first thousand votes are cheap ‑ almost free ‑ because as much as five percent of the vote is obtained just by getting your candidate’s name on the ballot. The next few thousand votes require financing a headquarters, staff, and publicity. Toward the end of a close race, advertising extras like radio or television ads and direct mail must be bought. In today’s elections, however, there are additional costs in purchasing data analytic and technological expertise in managing social media, as well as purchasing Internet platforms and ads.
Comparing today’s elections from those of the past, the Internet and related technology cannot be overlooked. The technology developed by national campaigns is now used in local campaigns to interact with their potential supporters to get volunteers, donations, and votes. Planning an online campaign begins by building an integrated system with traditional and online campaign components reinforcing each other. The major technological components of a twenty-first century participatory campaign include a campaign webpage, blogs, email lists, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
Social media and bloggers have influence, so campaigns develop ways to monitor and respond to them. Knowing this, Donald Trump conducted his successful primary campaign mainly through use of often-hourly tweets. He sent more than 5,000 tweets in the first few months and had millions of views by the time of the early primaries.
Data analytics, information on voters gathered through social media data, is also having a major effect on present-day campaigns. Even local campaigns now use cookie-targeted online advertising to reach voters. Campaigns market their candidate online just like any other product.
Online politics brings both benefits and problems to voters and candidates. A candidate with no gravitas can use a catchy campaign to gain notoriety, displacing a worthy candidate with less online presence. This accounts for Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
The Internet and social media have become a permanent part of modern political campaigns. Wise use of digital media gives an edge to a candidate, enabling anyone to interact with them. Smart campaigns use social media to reach voters inexpensively.
As we recount in Winning Elections in the 21st Century, campaigns at even the most local level cost more than even the most expensive campaigns twenty years ago. Yet, raising money other than in Internet appeals is much the same. The candidate still has to meet and call donors for hours every single day.
Today’s campaigns are digital, with websites, voter analytics, and social media. Digital technologies make it possible to select which voters to contact and how best to approach them; sending information cheaply to them through the Internet. But the simple principle behind this is the same since the days of Abraham Lincoln. Find your favorable voters, get them to the polls, and you win the election.
Some of these new campaign trends boost voter information and participation. Some negative aspects threaten democracy. All these techniques, both the good and the bad, are now coming to local campaigns. Digital media is evolving quickly, so it is critical that it be harnessed to improve informed, democratic participation. This is a major challenge, not only for the Clinton and Trump campaigns, but for candidates running for town council, school board, or state legislature. No matter how crazy this election becomes under the new rules of the game, the end must be to improve, not undermine, our democracy.
-Written by Betty O’Shaughnessy & Dick Simpson, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century