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.
We often use euphemisms to describe voting–both the act itself and the work that goes into getting others to vote. We call it exercising our civic duty; we call it participating in democracy; we call it GOTV operations. Occasionally, we slip and call it field work, a more accurate etymological reference to the hard labor of tending to the delicate chore of growing something meaningful.