By Konrad Foote
2020 is only a few days old, but in Washington, preparations for this years US election began well before 2016. A time many expected this year to mark the second President Clinton to be finishing her first term, and on her way to dispatch her next milquetoast cookie-cutter Republican opponent. One who will tack to the right in the primary, and shift to the centre in the general.
This 2020 is a different stage production, with digital media playing a key part in the political performance. Taking lessons from the UK and the last 4 years in Washington, I’ll write about the themes that will play a strong role in the digital battleground of the US election.
1) Direct Communication
Many in the establishment fourth estate were surprised by the power candidate Trumps twitter feed wielded in the 2015/6 season. The social media platforms influence shouldn’t have been a surprise. A decade after its birth in 2006, the tech company was deeply embedded within US culture, from fashion trends to memes, it was a corner stone of peoples’ daily lives.
Rather than appearing to be an out-of-touch ‘fellow kids’ arm of his political campaign. It usurped America’s conservative media narrative and the GOP’s establishment interests. Not through a press release, but through 140 characters, he delivered his message directly, and amplified it through various ‘traditional’ outlets. @realdonaldtrump shifted focus away from the insider frontrunners (e.g. Jeb Bush), and ‘hijacked’ the parties base from the donor class.
In the current flooded field of Democratic party candidates, the ultimate winner will have to stand out. Again, we see a party with an ‘establishment’ favourite. Unlike the GOP’s Jeb Bush in 2016, Joe Biden has been able to maintain his name recognition aided front-runner status for the last 10 months, despite questions surrounding his cognitive stability.
With a crowded field, and the nature of the US broadcast journalistic system, those candidates who don’t curry favour with the established order, are left in the cold. In this regard, we see Democratic candidates who seek to use new media to construct a story, and use digital tools to overtake the establishment politicians of their party.
One interesting example is Andrew Yang. Initially perceived to be a future ‘also-ran’ in a crowded field (like many insiders suspending campaigns in 2019), Yang’s campaign is entering its 27th month with the entrepreneur polling at 6% (5th place) in an December Emerson poll, and financially out raising Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Yang’s an interesting study in his use of new media, particularly his utilisation of podcasting. In an age where politics is critiqued for boiling down into simple sound bites, long-form podcasting is a growing medium allowing for in-depth discussion to captivate the users attention. Starved of traditional media attention, Yang pushed his discussion of automation and UBI (Universal Basic Income) through one of the largest shows in the format (the Joe Rogan Experience). Here his near 2 hour long interview has so far fetched 4.8 million views on YouTube alone. Since appearing on all manner of political podcasts, his campaign has been clever in using their digital savvy to develop a media presence where one was not previously available. Not only bypassing the gatekeeping nature of the traditional media outlets, but also promoting him to voters where they are (their cars, their tube journey to work), potentially reaching and exposing his candidacy to new voters who may not watch the cable news networks.
Former Independent senator turned Democratic Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders too faces a battle against an entrenched party establishment. In a similar way, we see his campaign use digital savvy to utilise new media to spread his message of ‘Democratic Socialism’ to a younger demographic, both through his Twitter feed, and through political allies within ‘new media’/fifth estate personalities (e.g. political YouTubers).
However, digital strategy isn’t as simple as pressing record on a YouTube video or podcast. A false sheen can easily tarnish a politician online. Stepping out of your comfort zone is essential in the age of digital, its no longer the 90s where you run your campaign through cable TV. Acting artificial
or insincere, is a sure fire way to destroy credibility, removing your chance of persuasion as ridicule will destroy the very message you wish to build.
One such victim in this regard was Elizabeth Warren in mid-2019. In the context of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram live cooking Q&A’s / AMA’s (Ask Me Anything), the Warren campaign sought to capitalise on a similar idea. However, what works for one, does not always work for another. Warren’s stilted and inauthentic delivery during her video with “hold on a sec, I’m going to grab me, umm, a beer”, and following up with “oh look, my husband Bruce is now in here”, led to ridicule and subsequent memes of the out-of-touch campaign. Since this incident, the campaign has changed tactic, to one seeking to embrace the ‘policy wonk’ aspect of Warren, and seeking to provide a personal manifesto with a policy for every key issue.
The challenge in the digital climate is the necessity to not only use the tools available, but to also be (or at least appear) genuine. Digital allows an opportunity to bypass the traditional establishment gatekeepers, communicating to the public directly. However, it seems as though some advisors are using old chisels on a new block of granite.
the internet will clearly see through false attempts at authenticity, ridiculing and destroying the very message you wish to build. Genuine and in-character messaging can not only be humours, but cut through the media landscape far better than a more official stilted messaging platform.
2) Clear simple messaging
Ted Kennedy notoriously had no coherent answer to the question “Why do you want to be President?”. Its a question that dogged the rest of his campaign. Over 40 years have passed since the famous 1979 interview, and it appears many strategists have not learnt this lesson. Boil down your message to its core, why should people care about you?
In 2019 the UK faced an election, the winning party were the Conservatives who successfully focused the election around the topic of Brexit with a simple message, “GET BREXIT DONE”. The success was routed in how it resonated with the British public, who after 3 years of Westminster inaction and chaos, desired a conclusion. It also allowed the ‘new’ government to draw a sharp distinction between their new direction, and the floundering, ill-defined “BREXIT MEANS BREXIT”.
The principle of scarcity can be applied to the message. What is unique about the campaign? What is the story the campaign wishes to sell? once this story is determined, it needs to be reduced to its core element. Why should the public care? Once done, its ready to present through the digital medium.
We all know how in 2016, Trump wore his “Make America Great Again” slogan upon his head (literally). One more slogan was used however, since its inception it was repeated in all his rallies. “DRAIN THE SWAMP”. This line was clear, but most importantly tapped into the American psyche, touching a nerve with the public’s hatred of money in politics (2015 New York Times poll showed 84% believe there is ‘Too much’ money in politics). Combining the slogan with humour and opposition ridicule (the insider lobbyists dubbed ‘swamp creatures’ by his campaign) allowed those the message resonated with to have a good story. Due to the humour, they would happily share it with their friends, spreading the ‘Networking Effect’ of the message.
The “DRAIN THE SWAMP” mantra had an added benefit of tarnishing his opponent, Hilary Clinton. During the Democratic Primary she was dogged with allegations of corruption regarding paid speaking events to Wall Street banks, the Clinton Foundation’s finances, and an email scandal which resulted the FBI publicly disclosing an investigation into the matter. This resonated with the publics anger, and allowed candidate Trump to paint a line (no matter how rooted in fact) between him and 2016 opponent.
Clinton’s promotion of the status quo wasn’t beneficial in an electorate seeking change. A response of “AMERICA’S ALREADY GREAT” may have been met with nods of approval within the metropolitan centres and her campaign HQ, but it did not resonate within the American heartland and Rust Belt, where the “Already Great” was defined by rampant medical bankruptcy, job losses, and the prospect of large debt meaning poorer lives for their children. Looking at the nations problems, these voters opted for someone they felt recognised issues needing to be addressed, and who’s solution they deemed to be a finger to the entrenched establishment who they felt didn’t recognise their problems, instead appearing to side with the identity politics of “I’M WITH HER”. These states swung for Trump in 2016’s electoral college, and lost her the election.
Clarity and Simplicity. These are required for the digital platforms to enable to story you wish to tell. Constant scrolling requires clear cut meaning – don’t make it hard for the public to understand.
A big scalp already out from the Democratic primary is Kamala Harris. Once a potential front runner, she struggled to define her campaign and her candidacy. This resulted in her struggling to find support and a financial base of grassroots donors and volunteers as a result. Like Beto O’Rourke before her, both traditional media darlings failed to capture attention because they couldn’t define their reason for running. If they can’t articulate it, why should you care?
It would be wrong to say this applies to all the current candidates. There are clear examples of candidates who show they’re able to With 3 different Democratic candidates, we can compress their campaigns into key policies. With Andrew Yang, it’s Universal Basic Income and dangers of Automation. With Bernie Sanders, it’s Medicare-for-All and Wealth Inequality. For Elizabeth Warren, it’s Wall Street regulation.
Although still requiring a key summary sentence, these are candidates able to answer the question “Why do you want to be President?”. Why should someone vote for you rather than stay at home?
A key 2020 digital strategy to succeed this election cycle, will be for the candidates to enable the American public to internalise a reason to care. In this age of digital media, clarity is more important than ever.
3) Turn out the vote
It’s not enough to merely have a good percentage in the polls. Aside from the outcome of the election being decided by the Electoral College, and not by a nationwide poll. The approval rating doesn’t directly equate to who will win as the most essential part of the campaign is instead the strength of a candidates support.
Trump may have a high disapproval rating, (currently aggregated at 53%), however, this does not necessarily correlate to the final vote percentage against him in the general election. What matters for him, is how motivated people are both for and against him.
In this 2020 Trumps goal is simple, motivate his base, demotivate his opponents’. Digital Media provides tools for the administration to deliver such a message to the American public. Through targeted and direct messaging on social channels, they have the opportunity to present a narrative of a President rallying against a vindictive opposition party, where the Congressional House of Representatives currently controlled by Democrats. Combing this message, with one where the President requires public support against an ‘unfair’ impeachment, will write a strong narrative to convince Republican base support to ‘get out the vote’ in order to support the incumbent President Trump. Such a narrative would be further strengthened if the articles of impeachment are brought to the Senate, where an 60% majority would not coalesce around a guilty verdict, thus ensuring the President is acquitted of the charges. Enabling the President to distribute a victory lap of ‘acquittal rallies’ decimated across both organic and paid means.
For the future Democratic nominee for the Presidency, the media goal would be to achieve 4 goals within their media narrative. No small task. However, with the aid of digital media to disseminate the message, there is a possibility they will be able to do so.
Firstly, they will need to harness Trumps opposition behind whichever candidate wins. Just because someone opposes Trump, doesn’t mean they will support the Democratic nominee. The story they must construct needs to be one thats focused, and stays on course for policy areas the incumbent President has shown previous failure in combatting. This will require them to avoid areas in which Trump is able to divide opposition and derail a conversation (e.g. the 2016 ‘culture’ war), and instead focus on a narrative as observed in 2017 when the GOP was unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Trump dipped to one of the lowest approval ratings of his 4 year term so far (35-7%).
Secondly, they will need to inspire their Democratic base. Clinton did not adequately do this, with an assumption that all those who participated in the Democratic primary would vote Democrat in the General Election. This turned out to be inaccurate. NPR polling found that in Michigan, (a state Clinton lost by 10,704 votes), around 8% of Bernie’s voters in the primary, voted for Trump in the General. This resulted in approximately 47,915 votes lost by the Clinton campaign, nearly 350% greater than the vote margin of Trumps victory. To inspire their base, the nominee will have to ensure they have a digital strategy not only to improve turn out, and appease voters who could potentially be lost to the GOP, but most importantly, to target communications to those districts in which they need to deliver.
Thirdly, name recognition is key. A key advantage for Trump’s challenge was his name recognition, as a reality star since the 80s. A comparable advantage is held by both Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, both with strong national name recognition having both ran for President in previous elections, and the former being Vice President for 8 years. However, the same cannot be said for candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar who, if nominated, will need to work hard to ensure the general population knows who they are, where they stand, and what their motivation should be regarding their support for the candidate.
Fourth and finally, the Democratic nominee will need to combine the above points to deliver and promote a ‘network effect’ for their candidate. It’s not enough to be merely top- down in their messaging approach. In the digital age, P2P sharing is essential to remain relevant. a strong digital strategy will allow the campaign to target the specific users most l likely to resonate with the campaigns message. Once these members of the public are actively engaged and retargeted with the political messaging, its far more likely a candidate will be able to succeed due to a combination of peer authority and social proof validating their peer opinion.