What happened to Democrats’ Digital Deficit?
From advertising to organizing to tech, Democrats have leapfrogged Republicans online. That doesn’t mean they’ll sweep in November.
Several years after the political press universally declared Democrats at a digital disadvantage, Republican campaigns have largely ceded the virtual battlefield to the Left. From advertising and social media engagement to organizing and tech, Democratic campaigns and progressive groups have found new ways to engage voters online, while Republicans well… haven’t.
Will it be enough to overcome a “Red Wave” in November? We’ll share our thoughts and more below. But first…
By the numbers
FWIW, here were the top-spending political advertisers on Facebook + Instagram last week:
Despite Republican candidates nationally cutting back on digital advertising this cycle, Greg Abbott is one notable exception. The Texas Governor’s campaign has spent $1.6 million on Facebook and $600,000 on Google this year to fend off an aggressive challenge from Beto O’Rourke.
Meanwhile, here were the top political advertisers on Google platforms last week, including YouTube:
On YouTube, 501(c)4, PAC, and party committee spending remains high. We ran a quick analysis of spending over the past month and found that the total spend between Republican and Democratic-affiliated outside groups is about even.
…and here are the top political ad spenders on Snapchat so far this year:
One of our favorite resources for exploring the people behind the progressive movement is Nathaniel Pearlman's podcast, The Great Battlefield. Over the past few years, he’s interviewed hundreds of operatives and innovators on the Left to highlight the organizations and strategies driving our politics. Recently he interviewed yours truly, Courier Newsroom’s Tara McGowan, SwingLeft’s Yasmin Radjy, Dmitri Melhorn from Investing in US, Check My Ads co-founder Claire Atkin, and many more. Listen + browse his full archive here or wherever you get your podcasts >>
From around the internet
Which midterm candidates are receiving the most reactions, comments, and shares on their campaign’s Facebook posts? The answer may surprise you >>
We are now entering “a blackout period” for Facebook and Instagram advertising in the campaign’s final stretch. That means political campaigns and organizations won’t be allowed to run new ads from next Tuesday through Election Day. We’ve heard from a bunch of digital consultants who are not too happy about it.
Amassing tens of thousands of followers, campaign aides are becoming social media personalities and influencers in their own right, according to the New York Times.
Are major social media platforms in decline? Are they having an identity crisis? Kevin Roose makes the case here, Ryan Broderick wrote an excellent piece on why Twitter just can’t take off, and Charlie Warzel fears Elon Musk may kill the platform.
The DNC’s mobilization team worked with the White House and others to bring a bunch of high-profile TikTok creators to DC for an epic civics lesson. Read about it here in the Washington Post …and speaking of TikTok, this gem pretty much sums up the stakes of this election.
What happened to Democrats’ Digital Deficit?
Just several years after the political press universally declared Democrats at a digital disadvantage, Republicans have ceded the virtual battlefield to the Left.
After Donald Trump’s shock 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, the political press developed a persistent narrative that the Democrat’s loss was due to failures to invest in her party’s digital, data, and technology infrastructures:
In fact, this newsletter was created in 2018 in part to raise awareness of the former President’s large-scale investments in digital advertising that Democrats were leaving largely unchecked.
Flash-forward to 2022: One party is certainly at a disadvantage in the internet department, and it’s not the Democrats. Here are 8 trends that are defining the new reality:
Democratic candidates are far outspending the GOP on digital ads
After Donald Trump’s campaign introduced the GOP to digital marketing best practices in 2016 and 2020, we assumed that Republican candidates for statewide or federal office would continue to deploy similar tactics moving forward. We were wrong. In 2022, Republican candidates have reverted to their old ways, spending hardly anything on Facebook and Google advertising, ceding critical internet real estate to their Democratic opponents.
Democrats aren’t just spending more, they’re spending smarter. Liberal campaigns and nonprofits alike are experimenting with creating different brands on Facebook through which to advertise, betting that voters may perceive information differently through different messengers.
There’s a one-sided war for TikTok
Vertical video app TikTok is taking over the world, and for the most part, only one party has decided to hop on board. By our last count, 31 major candidates for statewide elected office were active on the social media app, and the vast majority (24) of them were Democrats. The platform’s discovery engine feeds users content from accounts they don’t even follow, meaning Republican candidates have again given millions of virtually free eyeballs to Democrats in a key corner of the internet.
If TikTok continues on its current growth trajectory, it’s fair to say that Republicans will be unable to resist joining the platform in 2024.
Conservative social media alternatives have largely failed
Conservative social media alternatives like Truth Social, Gettr, and Parler have largely failed to take off, and a grand exodus off of mainstream platforms like Facebook never materialized. “Truth Social is a non-entity…There’s nowhere near the user population needed to justify engaging with the platform,” Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson told me recently.
Republican online grassroots fundraising is drying up post-Trump
Some blame Trump, some blame big tech, and others blame spammy tactics, but Republicans in 2022 have experienced a major small-dollar donor problem. In recent weeks, some GOP candidates have started to improve on this metric a bit, but Democrats remain far ahead.
Snapchat advertising provides cheap impressions for Democrats
Believe it or not, many young people still use Snapchat to share content, watch videos, and message back and forth with their friends. Like Facebook and Instagram, the platform allows campaigns and advocacy groups to serve users political ads, and only one side is doing so. Our recent analysis found that Democrats pretty much have Snapchat all to themselves.
Digital content organizing on the Left is on the rise
Democrats started 2022 with a renewed focus on digital organizing - with various campaigns and party structures coming up with ways for volunteers to get involved online. The Democratic National Committee launched a content organizing program using app Greenfly to distribute its content organically through supporters’ feeds. Liberal internet coalitions like DemCast regularly fire up the base to distribute content to their friends and networks. Even candidates themselves, like John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, have built active communities on platforms like Slack to crowdsource memes and recruit volunteers to take action.
These things aren’t happening in an organized fashion on the Right.
Democrats’ post-Trump technology, organizational, and talent investments continue
After their loss in 2016, progressives launched a constellation of groups to help down-ballot campaigns with technology resources and talent. Many of those organizations still exist six years later, including Higher Ground Labs, Tech for Campaigns, DigiDems, Arena, and Run for Something - there are actually too many to name.
Tech startups like Scale to Win, Reach, and Hovercast and platforms like Mobilize have become powerful pieces of Democratic infrastructure. Republicans have attempted to combat this “liberal tech resurgence,” with less success.
Democrats have re-imagined the intersection of data and offline organizing
For the past 12 years, Democratic campaigns have historically been religiously fanatic about deploying the Obama campaign’s rigid, hierarchical approach to on-the-ground organizing.
However, in recent years, friend-to-friend outreach and so-called “relational organizing,” have become en-vogue on the Left and now supplement traditional stranger-to-stranger canvassing efforts. When old-school canvassing lists are used, they’re now almost always displayed on an app called MiniVAN, not paper clipboards. That’s a small but important gain for a party that relies on these massive in-person canvassing efforts.
All of these digital advances are important and noteworthy - but Republicans still have extremely powerful advantages that will make every national election in the foreseeable future competitive: right-wing media, major dark money spending, gerrymandered districts, and a strong voting culture among older voters, to name a few. This cycle, smart digital ads and a solid TikTok strategy may not be sufficient to overcome sky-high gas prices, sloppy messaging, or a sputtering economy.
In thinking through this piece, I had a lengthy conversation with longtime progressive strategist Micah Sifry, who writes The Connector. He was a little skeptical about the impact of several of the tactics I laid out above.
“We just don't know enough about what doesn't work, or when paid media or digital outreach backfires...and the effects of political advertising are generally overstated,” Micah told me.
He published some additional thoughts on our conversation here, which are worth a read. His arguments are similar to those I’ve heard in the past - and he generally points to year-round, person-to-person organizing as a much more effective tactic than some of these internet things I laid out above. I don’t disagree.
At the end of the day, my main point is this: If there is to be a “Red Wave” on November 8th - which remains a very real possibility - it would be much larger had Republicans invested in some of the basic aspects of modern campaigning, especially since whatever “Democratic digital disadvantage” that may have existed in previous cycles has evaporated.
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That’s it for FWIW this week! With Election Day less than 2 weeks away(!), make sure to follow us on Twitter for real-time updates on spending and digital trends in the midterms.