Coming out of the 2016 Presidential Election, political organizers were forced to confront a reality that advertisers have understood for decades: attention capture is the key to successfully convincing people to pick a product or a candidate. The frustrating truth is that Donald Trump commanded an outsize level of attention across media and became president, in large part, because of it.
The exponential nature of technological proliferation has made the halcyon days of 2008 with its micro-targeted Presidential campaign bus ads feels like it was far longer than a decade ago, and the unique ability of the Trump campaign to demand eyes and ears and clicks, has forever and absolutely changed the arena of political attention jockeying. It is easy to see trends in the data that would convince even the most skeptical old-media believer that the future of political organizing is online. And this is especially true for Democratic candidates with the opportunity to harness organic digital advocacy outfits.
I worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a field organizer in Michigan. Before the election, I was asked by more than a few Michigan voters about an ad running on their Facebook timelines: a South Park-like animation citing Clinton’s now infamous “super-predator” line from the 90s. Brad Parscale, Trump’s social media director,showed Bloomberg this ad in the days before November 8, adding that it was part of a broader effort of dark ads aimed at African American voters in Michigan and beyond. Our team wasn’t sure what to say ‒ we didn’t have a commensurate response to counteract these efforts online.
This was the “major voter suppression operations” a senior official for the Trump campaign described before the election, and it was part of the reason Trump won by just 12,000 votes in Michigan. The Trump campaign was releasing a flood of fake news, ads, and twitter bots online, but the Democrats failed to build a robust digital counterweight.
I would not have wanted Hillary’s team to confront bots and fake news with their own, and this is not the answer for the Democrats moving forward. Republicans have always focused their campaigns on advertisements over the airwaves, so it made sense for the new frontier of Republican campaigning to be attack ads online. For decades, Democrats have won elections by harnessing the power of their volunteers through door-to-door canvassing and grassroots movements. The time has come for Democrats to bring their strengths online.
In 2013, the University of Alabama’s top-ranked college football team lost to their intra-state rival, Auburn University, on what is widely considered one of the most improbable single plays in college football history. With the game tied nearing the end of regulation, Alabama lined up to kick a field goal. The long field goal attempt had little chance of success but was a risk worth taking because of the incredible unlikelihood that the play could lead to an Auburn score. That, however, is exactly what happened. The kick was short, and an Auburn player took the ball from the back of his own endzone 109-yards for a touchdown. The game was over. Auburn won.
According to an October 12th poll, Democrat Doug Jones would need exactly this sort of Auburn miracle to beat Republican Roy Moore in the December 12th special election for Jeff Sessions’ vacated Senate seat.
Well, it seems like Jones has the ball and is running towards Moore’s endzone.
As it turns out, the best way to win an election is to get as many votes as possible. Amazingly, the American punditry and vast swaths of the American political class seem to forget this lesson in between elections.
In slightly more sophisticated terms, the lesson should be how important it is to capitalize on fundamental advantages in the electorate.
President Trump’s dismal approval numbers should have been (and were) a good indicator of Democratic success on November 7. Had the right voters not shown up, however, Tuesday night would have been very different.