By Nathan LaCombe
August 18, 2015 at 5:00 am ET
As GOP candidates strategize after their August debate and Democratic nominees prep for their first debate on October 13th, one thing is clear: meeting voters where they are has become paramount in the 2016 presidential campaigns.
Whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s super army of digital analysts or Rand Paul’s “Republican Internet” team, every candidate sees the importance of digital campaigning and doing their best to implement a digital strategy that will help them stand out to voters, particularly on mobile platforms.
There was a time when digital campaigning was questionable. Many saw online action and campaigning as slacktivism. That has changed dramatically. Vincent Harris, Chief Digital Strategist for Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, says, “Online action equals offline action. Buying a shirt online equals someone wearing the shirt offline. Crowdsourcing the shirt design is even better!” Harris and many other digital strategists argue that the best way to reach voters is through the internet and social media, particularly through their mobile devices.
While every candidate has in fact taken note of the need for a digital team or an analytics go-to person, some (in both parties) are doing this better than others.
Republican candidates are largely relying on external firms to do their digital strategies, with four of the top six candidates hiring external organizations. These organizations include Harris Media Inc., WPA Opinion Research, Push Digital and Poolhouse. Each of these firms has a particular competitive advantage over the others. Harris Media has mastered the art of Facebook and Snapchat outreach. Poolhouse, Rubio’s digital campaign firm, is focused on video strategy, including YouTube and television. These external firms have had varying degrees of success with creating a larger base on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. This interactive tool allows you to sort candidates by Twitter followers, Facebook Likes, and compare it to the size of their digital campaign staff.
At the same time, some Republican hopefuls are struggling to create a digital image for themselves. Candidates like Carson, Christie and Trump are relying on traditional social media outreach and are losing the micro focus that analytics and mobile have allowed. Their grassroots approaches lack the interaction that many mobile constituents prefer. While their debate performances in early August will certainly help their polling, digital-savvy constituents get tired of receiving automated DMs on Twitter (click on the image below):
And the Democrats? Hillary Clinton’s campaign boasts over 25 in-house staffers focused solely on analytics, many of whom joined after working for Obama’s “Cave” in 2008. Trailing Clinton in polls, but gaining in online impressions is Bernie Sanders. Sanders has hired Revolution Messaging to manage his digital campaign and has made great strides in polls due to that firm’s ability to cover everything in Sanders’ campaign, from advertising to fundraising.
Campaigns are seeing the benefits of digital campaigning and learning the importance of data-driven strategies. In the past, left and right alike saw digital campaigning as nothing more than creating online advertisements. Today, all candidates are harnessing the benefits of mobile advertising with tools like Geo-Fencing and on platforms like Snapchat. Rakesh Mital, a leading digital strategist in the private sector, argues that for digital campaigns to be relevant, firms needs to “Ensure that [their] Big Data strategy is not information rich but intelligence poor” and that when it comes down to it, “only digital format works. The vector has to be mobile.” That is to say that campaigns need to be able to target their voters in a very detailed way. Lots of data does not win campaigns. Rather, the right data used in the right way does.
As the primaries come closer, smartphones are going to become the face of campaigns. Users will increasingly be able to interact with candidates just as they do their friends. Indeed, data will win the White House.
Nathan LaCombe is a Montana native currently working for Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research in Washington, D.C.