In the 2016 race for US Senate in North Carolina, I kept seeing ads for Senator Richard Burr, or against Democrat Deb Ross, while I was watching Youtube videos. I never saw any supporting Ross or slamming Burr. I realized that may have been a factor of me being a Burr target, but not a Ross one, but I suspected it was probably because Democrats weren’t using digital advertising to the extent Republicans were. As it turns out, that’s exactly what was happening. And it may be happening again.
According to one analysis, Republicans in 2016 spent 28% of the communications budgets on digital campaigns while Democrats spent only 4%. An article in the New York Times last month says Republicans are spending as much as 40% of their communications budget online this year. Democrats are spending less than 10%. In 2017, businesses crossed the threshold and spent more than half of their budgets on digital communications. To be competitive in the future Democrats will need to catch up.
I’ve long been skeptical of how Democrats and their allied third party organizations run their communications campaigns. They’ve been using the same tools, tactics and strategies for the past twenty years, despite massive changes in technology and voter behavior. The failure to adapt has contributed to the loss of a record number of races up and down the ballot over the past eight years.
I’ve spent the last few months reading research on political communication, trying to better learn what works and what doesn’t. Much of what campaigns do is little more than a waste of money. It’s time Democrats adapt.
Let me start with a few caveats. The most powerful force in any campaign is the political environment. When it favors one side in a wave, like in 2010 or 2006, it washes that side into office regardless of the quality of communication. This year, Democrats will do very well because the environment will favor them heavily.
Another caveat is that certain districts are not winnable. The best campaign in the world won’t beat the worst in these districts. Gerrymandering and sorting has given us a lot of them.
Back in September 2017, two researchers from Berkley made an astounding proclamation: All that money spent on campaigns had little or no impact. I think their premise is overstated but they have some solid points. They believe, correctly, that there are very few persuadable voters in the electorate today and that campaigns spend a disproportionate amount of money trying to reach swing voters. Instead, campaigns should be spending that money trying to reshape the electorate by putting more of their voters in the polls.
When I started running campaigns in the 1990s, as much as a third of the electorate was up for grabs, depending on the district. Today, less than 10% is really persuadable and I’ve had pollsters argue that, in most places, it’s closer to five percent.
So let’s put that into perspective. In the race for a state house seat in North Carolina, the average number of voters is around 25,000 people. If only ten percent are persuadable, that’s just 2,500 votes up for grabs. If a campaign won those voters by 60% to 40%, which would be quite an accomplishment, they would gain a 500 vote margin, 1,500 to 1000. Most campaigns will probably have fewer than 2,500 persuadable voters and few will win them by 60%, so it’s more likely a 200-300 margin they’re gaining.
Now, plenty of campaigns in North Carolina are decided by less than 500 votes, so winning those persuadable voters could easily make a difference, but only if the district is evenly split otherwise. In most competitive legislative races, campaigns are spending well in excess of $100,000 in communications, mostly direct mail. The professors who wrote the study believe that a well-funded field operation could put significantly more than 500 voters in the polls for similar money.
Democrats seem to be slowly embracing this idea. In Virginia last year, a massive field operation fueled the victory that almost gave Democrats the House of Delegates and elected Ralph Northam to the largest victory margin in recent history. They successfully took advantage of a political environment that put the wind at their backs.
Not only has the electorate changed, becoming more polarized and less persuadable, but the way we receive and consume information has changed, too. Technology has transformed our world but not our political communications. Moving forward, campaigns and campaign organizations need to better understand how to spend their money.
Today, the trick is not to dominate a medium but to find the mix that wins a campaign. Different people are getting their information in different ways. Campaigns need to figure out where their target audiences are getting their information and go after them where they live.
One thing has not changed—yet. Television is still the most powerful communications medium because of its impact and reach. However, it is changing, too. Younger voters are no longer watching television and even older voters are using DVRs and other tools that avoid ads. Still, people over 65 increased their television consumption last year and those 50 and over held steady. These groups also contain the most reliable voters. Older people vote.
Over time, television will be consumed by digital, or more likely, the two will become indistinguishable. Today, though, the most powerful digital ads are pre-roll video. Research shows that they have the same impact as television ads, which makes sense since they’re usually the same thing, just a different medium. Pre-roll ads lack reach. They play before an online video, like the Burr ads I saw in 2016, and force the viewer to watch at least a portion of it. A lot of people still don’t watch online videos, though. Online consumption is roughly the same across demographics, but, since younger people aren’t on television and are less likely to check mail, digital is probably essential to communicating with the under 40 crowd.
And that brings us to direct mail. I’ve spent over twenty years doing political direct mail and much of what we’ve been told about it is wrong. First, it’s not cumulative. In other words, more mail does not make it more effective. Instead, like other forms of communication, it has diminishing returns. According to researchers, the first piece of mail has the greatest marginal impact and every piece after that has diminishing impact until, after roughly six pieces, there is no evidence the mail has any influence at all.
That revelation should change the way legislative campaigns communicate since persuasion direct mail has become the dominant medium in these races. The fifteen and twenty piece mail plans recommended by consultants and caucus organizations may be the largest consistent waste of money in politics. I’ve heard consultants in campaign trainings say, “There’s no such thing as too much mail.” That’s just not true and it’s even less true when every campaign is dropping it. The more mail in a mailbox, the less impact yours will have.
When I started doing mail in legislative races in the early 1990s, nobody else was dropping mail. A decade later, everybody was. Mailboxes were full and mail consultants responded by “Send more!” We thought we needed to “cut through” with enough mail when, in fact, we needed to make sure our first piece reached voters before the mailboxes got too crowded, because that was the piece with the greatest impact.
I suspect mail works best when it’s sent around a very specific issue or theme when the candidate or candidates have more than just a little name recognition. Three or four pieces attacking your opponent for opposing education initiatives might be effective. Or four or five pieces highlighting your civic engagement might work. It’s also a great way to reach very narrow audiences, like older women or African-American men, but it’s not a broadcast medium and trying to use it that way doesn’t work.
So what to do? Well, build out that field operation. Build a targeted social media program using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Start looking for alternative means of communications. I spent several days at my in-laws in a little town in northern Minnesota and watched my 72-year-old mother-in-law listen to the local radio station for an hour or so every morning.
We should revisit small town newspapers. Back when we stopped advertising in them, a half-page ad cost as much or more than a piece of mail. Today, given the state of newspapers, I bet you could buy a few weeks of half page ads for the price of a piece of mail.
Look at cable in your district. Maybe it’s not efficient, but maybe it is. Reach might be a problem but reach is a problem with every medium. You’re always missing somebody.
The goal should be to raise your name recognition as efficiently as possible. You’re not going to get there using a single medium. It’s going to take multiple mediums and a lot of face-to-face contact.
Finally, spend your money late. The undecided voters are mostly late breakers. Research shows that money spent on advertising before Labor Day is mostly wasted. All those mail pieces dropping right now are little more than recycling, so don’t be tempted. You work hard for your money. Spend it well.
After almost 25 years of working in campaigns, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of what we do is wrong. Beginning in the 1990s, we created a political consulting industry with powerful players making millions of dollars. Our political parties and campaign committees have delegated campaign strategy to people who get paid by the piece or the gross rating point. They have little interest in changing the system, regardless of how much the electorate, the environment or the technology evolves. Instead, we should have consultants or staff who are steeped in an understanding of political communications in general and working to figure out what mix of media is needed to reach our target audiences. I’m not optimistic much will change.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >