How to Win in the Era of Trump
The 2016 election left many of us feeling frustrated, disappointed, and scared for the future of our country. These devastating losses left us with many lessons to learn with regards to campaigning. Now, more than half a year into the era of Trump, we’ve come to understand more than ever the importance of learning from our mistakes and moving forward.
It’s time for us to get back out on the field, run great campaigns, and win. We need to ramp up our campaigns and learn from the mistakes of the 2016 election cycle to prepare for a better future. But before we do that, we need to evaluate why we lost, what went wrong, and how we can adjust going forward.
How He Won
For most of us, Donald Trump’s win was incredibly unexpected. For one thing, he seemed to have buried his chance at the Presidency with gaffes and scandals on the campaign trail. The vast majority of polls showed an easy Clinton win, and Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 million votes. So how did he do it?
There is no short answer. Many things mattered in this election — emails and Russia, to name a few. But one thing is clear: during the 2016 election cycle, Trump and Republicans overwhelmingly used the power of data and digital to persuade and turn out voters — and it worked.
Trump’s team knew he wouldn’t win over the majority of voters — and he didn’t need to. With the power of sophisticated data and digital tools, they successfully identified and communicated directly with voters in key districts and states.
In fact, the Trump campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, planned it this way from the beginning. Here’s what he told NPR:
“We never fought for the popular vote. There was no economical reason, and there was no reason based off the system of our Constitution to do so. We needed to win 270, and to do so we needed to win in certain states, and we needed to target registered voters that had a low propensity to vote and propensity to vote for Donald Trump if they come.”
It’s 2017, and we’re well into the digital age. Democrats need to adapt to the changing political climate if we want to win now and in the future. As we learned the hard way in 2016, we need to catch up and keep up with the changing media landscape if we have a shot at turning things around in 2017 and 2018.
How Trump Used Digital
It’s estimated that the Trump campaign dedicated nearly 50% of their paid voter contact budget on digital ads alone — a gamble that proved to be incredibly successful. Republicans across the country allocated similar shares of their budgets to online outreach, and as we all saw, Republicans candidates overwhelmingly won across all levels of government.
Trump’s team used extensive research and psychological data collected from Facebook and other sources to gather profiles of American voters. They then created hundreds of thousands of ad variations targeted to specific groups with the messaging that would be most convincing to each voter profile. And they used tools like Facebook’s ‘brand lift’ surveys to ensure they only used the most effective ads. Finally, they used copious amounts of data to target very specific ads to very specific voters.
This is the true power of digital combined with data — the ability to target precise demographics of voters while costing less and driving more results.
In the beginning of the primaries, Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale took a gamble and spent the entire $2 million voter communication budget on Facebook ads alone. Trump’s communications plan had a digital focus from the beginning, and continued to aggressively ramp up from there.
On Election Day, the Trump campaign purchased all the ad space on YouTube, so that every single person that went on YouTube on Election Day saw Trump messaging specifically targeted toward them.
Beyond voter outreach, the Trump campaign also used digital advertising to dissuade potential Clinton supporters from turning out to vote. They used specially targeted attack ads on key demographics that Hillary needed to win, including idealistic white liberals, African Americans, and young women.
Trump’s team effectively used the marketing tools of Facebook and Google advertising to win more than 270 electoral voters and the Presidency, despite not earning the votes of the majority of Americans.
What went wrong for Democrats?
What went well in Trump’s communication plan was exactly what went wrong in Hillary’s. While Republicans overwhelmingly turned to digital as a big part of their paid voter contact plans in 2016, Democrats continued to rely too heavily on the less targeted, traditional forms of media — like TV and radio — rather than using digital to communicate with voters. Additionally, for far too many Democrats, digital was about organizing supporters and raising money but was not about communicating with voters.
Hillary’s paid communication plan was much larger, but massive outreach efforts do not necessarily drive effective results in the same way that targeted, multi-channel efforts do. Americans spend more time on digital than ever before, and that amount will only continue to increase. Hillary’s campaign seemingly neglected the millions of Americans who only consume media on computers and mobile devices.
Though the Clinton campaign out-fundraised and outspent Trump’s campaign on paid voter contact, they spent far less of it on targeted digital. This led to a paid voter contact and paid media plan that spent too much on TV, with diminishing returns, and too little on targeted digital, where the Trump campaign dominated.
What’s at stake?
If Democrats continue to primarily rely on traditional forms of media for the larger majority of paid voter contact, they’ll fall even further behind and continue to lose time and again. Our only option to turn things around in the future is to meet voters where they spend time and where campaigns can tailor messaging more finely than ever before — and that’s integrating traditional media with field, mail, and digital in the most effective way possible.
But this isn’t all about winning and losing. If we continue down this path we’re on, there will be long-term consequences for our families, our communities, our states, and our country.
The issues we’re facing now will only become worse if we don’t elect more progressives at every level. That means we need to win to make positive change on issues like health care, money in politics, immigration, gun safety, environmental protections, and good-paying jobs. In short for so many Americans the stakes are incredibly high. Democrats need to catch up and fight back to make difference for ordinary Americans in the years to come.
Even more, it’ll become more and more difficult to win in the future. In 2020, districts will be redrawn again. If we can’t regain power in our state legislatures, it will be another 10 years before we have an opportunity to fix the district lines. Gerrymandering leads to voter disenfranchisement and unfairly affects voter distribution along party lines, and we cannot afford to wait to fix it. So, winning election now matters today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.
How can Democrats fight back and win?
First and foremost, we need to understand the importance of targeted, integrated digital and we must use it more often and more effectively. Your voters are already spending time online. It’s up to you to meet them where they are.
As of now, the average American is expected to spend 5 hours and 50 minutes per day on digital, and just 4 hours and 4 minutes per day watching television. And what’s more, digital media consumption is constantly growing while everything else is shrinking. Think about it: in just the past few years, it’s become possible to be plugged in online and on social media at all hours of the day, no matter where you are. Democrats need to realize that voters’ media diets are changing and tap into the time their voters are already spending online.
However, it’s also important to note that while it’s important, digital alone is not the magic formula for winning elections. Targeted digital combined with other tactics like mail, TV ads, and face-to-face contact makes all the difference. Pairing and integrating digital with other forms of media and communicating your message to voters through multiple channels is the key. Using all these tactics together amplifies your message and increases the effect that each form of media has on your voters.
So what does this mean for my campaign?
Digital is one of the best investments you can make in your campaign. More importantly, all Democratic campaigns need to get the paid communication mix right. Remember, that’s not to say you should cast aside more traditional forms of voter communication. TV ads, radio, mail, and canvassing face to face are still essential parts of communicating with voters.
What it does mean is that we need to win now more than ever, and to do that we have to learn from our mistakes, adapt quickly, work hard, and win.
Want to learn more about how the Trump campaign used digital to win? Check out our sources below:
- How He Used Facebook To Win, The New York Review of Books, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/06/08/how-trump-used-facebook-to-win/
- How the Trump Campaign Built an Identity Database and Used Facebook Ads to Win the Election, Joel Winston, https://medium.com/startup-grind/how-the-trump-campaign-built-an-identity-database-and-used-facebook-ads-to-win-the-election-4ff7d24269ac
- How Trump Waged an Under the Radar Ground Game, NPR, http://www.npr.org/2016/12/06/504520364/how-trump-waged-an-under-the-radar-ground-game?sc=17&f=3&__hstc=109151578.c7b5049299a60ec4a9b07b2a0f33e651.1475695480269.1481915968344.1482156131448.38&__hssc=109151578.6.1482156131448&__hsfp=354030839
- Here’s How Much Less Than Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Spent On the Election, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2016/12/09/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-campaign-spending/
- The 45th: How the Trump Campaign’s Digital Strategy Made History, Harvard Business School, https://digit.hbs.org/submission/the-45th-how-the-trump-campaigns-digital-strategy-made-history/
Invite Change Media Group to your inbox! You’ll get our start-up series of emails, then one email a month of must-know info. No spam ever, unsubscribe any time.