The Medium Is the Message: How Smart Campaigns Can Turn Digital Into a Midterm Advantage

Listen, politicos, we need to talk. I know this is hard to hear, but I’m saying it for your own good: Twitter is not real life.

The Twitter-CNN-Playbook feedback loop is intoxicating, and you’re clearly intoxicated. I get it. But if we want to reach real, live persuadable voters ahead of the 2022 midterms, we need to seriously re-evaluate where we think they’re consuming information.

Those of us who work in politics tend to consume a very specific media diet of 24-hour news cycles, cable talking heads and a nice evening doom scroll through Twitter. But new data shows what smart media buyers have known all along: Swing voters inhabit an entirely different media universe — one where no one has even heard of Infrastructure Week.

Rising Tide Interactive and HIT Strategies recently completed a poll of 600 persuadable likely voters in 12 battleground states to better understand where swing voters are consuming media ahead of the midterms. The upshot: Swing voters are not seeking out political content — often, they’re actively avoiding it. And to reach them, we need to go to where they are: streaming services, digital video content, social media apps and gaming platforms.

In our study, a whopping 77 percent of persuadable voters reported seeing video ads they could not skip on online gaming content in the past month alone, and 63 percent report seeing digital video ads on online sports content. These results weren’t limited to younger voters, with rates holding steady between under 50 and over 50 segments.

On social media, Facebook and YouTube continue to dominate, with 51 percent of swing voters logging on to Facebook every day, and 64 percent visiting YouTube at least weekly. On the flip side, 57 percent of swing voters don’t use Twitter at all, with another 15 percent logging on once a week or less, and networks like Reddit, Parler and Gab show even lower adoption rates.

This aligns with research we conducted with Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) 2018 campaign, which revealed an inverse relationship between overall news consumption and persuadability — meaning that platforms that are heavily focused on political content, like Twitter and cable news, are about the last place you’re going to find swing voters.

Still, persuadable voters across age groups are very much online. Nearly half (48 percent) of swing voters who have both streaming services and linear TV at home told us they always or mainly watch TV via streaming services, while only 27 percent reported always or mainly watching broadcast or cable. Meanwhile, 44 percent of swing voters ages 18-44 don’t have cable or broadcast TV at home at all, along with 20 percent of those ages 45-64.

Beyond streaming, we found strong adoption rates for internet radio and online video content, with particularly high usage rates among voters of color. And when swing voters do consume news, they’re more likely to get it online: 51 percent reporting getting news from news websites or apps most or all of the time, compared with 35 percent for network TV, 34 percent for local TV and 32 percent for cable.

And these trends are only accelerating: 35 percent of swing voters reported an increase in their use of digital media over the past year. Only 7 percent said their digital use declined.

The takeaway is simple: As political professionals, it’s imperative that we reach persuadable voters where they are — not where we are. In 2021, all voters are digital voters, but the online spaces that swing voters occupy are vastly different from those of the politically obsessed, and it turns out that Twitter is in fact not real life.

At least we’ll always have Infrastructure Week.


Stephanie Grasmick is a partner and CEO at Rising Tide Interactive, a Democratic digital strategy firm based in Washington, D.C., where she manages digital strategy for statewide campaigns, national Democratic Party committees, progressive organizations and nonprofits.

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