Like tailgating at a college football game, the pre-primary crowds of presidential politics are small, but the energy level among true believers is off the charts. Positioning on issues doesn’t matter. Substantive policy solutions don’t matter. The closest thing to a qualitative review is counting “likes” on Facebook and selectively embracing whichever one of the ten national polls confirms the popularity of your favorite candidate.
As I write this article, the first debate of this political cycle hasn’t actually occurred yet, but the messaging, digital strategy and media spending to reach all voters is falling into place. Every campaign is looking to break through.
Those who work in the political arena have become accustomed to a “digital breakthrough” each cycle. Whether it was social, email or video, once it happens both parties quickly copy it. For 2016, the digital play books of candidates start off looking very familiar and very large. Email, social, programmatic display ads and, especially, pre-roll video are expected to jump to over $1 billion, five times the 2012 digital spend, according to a Borrell Study in 2014.
Social platforms will continue to exert a major influence. Among the base of true believers — those who have opted in and follow a candidate — social networks sites (SNS) remain an essential component of digital campaigns but they are also limited in terms of reach. According to a Pew Research study done in 2013, of the 91% of adults 18 to 29 on social networks, only 44% of were using them for civic activities. In the prime voting block of voters 50 to 65+ only 32% were on a social network, and of them only 21% were active in political causes.
Email will be used heavily again in 2016. The vaunted Obama mailing list will undoubtedly be well exercised in an attempt to raise small contributions from as many individual Democrat donors as possible. Logically (and historically), one would expect that the GOP candidates would attempt a similar tactic. At 87% reach, email was a game changer; however, the impact of email in 2012 had already started to become a little stale by 2014. The headlines of “fear and loathing” and “desperation and denial” didn’t seem to have the same resonance when it was delivered to the same voter 15 times a day. It will be interesting to see if a new tone can overcome the burnout factor.
No one is likely to argue that mobile and cross-device tactics have moved to the next level since 2012 and 2014. In 2012, smartphone coverage was at 45% of U.S. households. In that campaign, Obama broke new ground with a one-click donation option on a phone and through text messaging. Their email strategy was capped off with a smartphone app and SMS capability that let followers donate quickly and often via a credit card on file.
For 2016, smartphone coverage with the electorate will be critical because we aren’t talking just a mobile device any more — for the 41% of households without landlines, smartphones are their primary communications device. It is also the tool of choice for key constituent voter groups. According to Nielsen, “72% of Hispanics over 18 own smartphones, nearly 10 percentage points higher than the national average.” In order to secure the election, both parties readily concede that some level of success with the Hispanic community is necessary to win.
One of the important platform in digital politics for 2016 may be the impact of video. Social videos, pre-roll advertising and programmatic television advertising all promise to drive more views and more engagement. In 2016, this will happen more often on a smartphone than on other devices. Smartphones just passed PC Internet devices in overall usage each month. Linear TV viewership is down as more people are shifting to over the top on-demand television programming. Entertainment on devices and feeds that aren’t traditional television could challenge the efficacy of traditional TV Advertising buys — a core platform for campaigning.
The DNA of digital politics has been about improving voter “reach” since the 2008 cycle. Opening up social media to campaigning in 2008 made a huge difference in the outcome of that election. In 2012, the digital tool of choice was email. In 2014, the GOP copied everything before but came up big with better digital tools to optimize GOTV. They out-campaigned unenthusiastic Dems in the ground game and won. Whether the platform is email, social, smartphones or on-demand television, the digital story of 2016 is still going to be about reach. The tailgating crowd is always going to show up at the polls. They will get a candidate into the debate. But building smarter audiences targeting to every connected voter on the devices they prefer is what gets the voter to turn out and gets candidates elected.