Digital Strategies Fuel 2016 Campaign Launch Decisions

Digital Strategies Fuel 2016 Campaign Launch Decisions
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Yet, her advisers and campaign-team-in-waiting suggest she will try to execute an underdog’s campaign despite scant competition for the nomination, favoring a middle-class economic message designed to appeal to progressive fighters as well as moderate consensus-builders; she will woo women voters of all ages, plus the young people and minorities who flocked to Obama. Clinton hopes to cement her base while the Republican field bashes her — and one another.

The quiet chats she’s relied on more recently have been with key Democrats and progressive advocacy groups. In the last six months she has met one-on-one with major labor union leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who has publicly admonished Clinton to shed some of the former Clinton administration economic advisers whom he sees as too allied with Wall Street.

“Over the course of her career, she’s been an advocate for working-class people and that’s how most Democrats see her,” said Michael Podhorzer, AFL-CIO political director. “The electoral map that she needs to win in a general election definitely goes through working-class voters.”

In 2008 and 2012, Obama won the working-class vote (people earning less than $50,000 a year) by 22 points, he added. But in the midterm contests of 2010 and 2014, the margin for Democrats narrowed to 11 and 12 points, respectively. “That really spells the difference between winning and losing national elections,” Podhorzer told RCP.

Karen Skelton, who was a political adviser in the Clinton White House and has worked in five presidential campaigns, said she hoped voters would see the former secretary of state in small gatherings of low-income, struggling women and families. Any Democratic candidate needs those votes, but more importantly, they are at the heart of Clinton’s career in public service, said Skelton, who recently became a co-chair for California Women for Hillary, with a $1 million total fundraising goal.

 “It’s not overstating it to say people in the bottom 90 percent of the economic strata are women and working, but are struggling nonetheless,” Skelton said in an interview. “I’d like to see her be with them. A picture’s worth a thousand words.”

Republicans’ Timetables

A handful of GOP senators appears ready to fill the month of April with presidential campaign announcements. A two-week spring recess will allow them to exit Washington and travel to key primary states, where voters traditionally take the measure of White House aspirants.

Even before making their intentions official, 2016 wannabes are calculating how to leverage media suspense and reinforce messages tailored for social media and digital outreach.  

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who will help moderate one of the GOP’s presidential primary debates later this year, said Republican candidates are focused on coming out on top among likely voters in the three early primaries or the Iowa caucus. They can leverage conservative media in radio or on Fox News to tease a launch announcement in advance. 

“Clearly you're looking at trying to engage people in those early states to draw momentum and extend your network,” Hewitt told RCP. “Tell people to watch for a big announcement, tweet it out, and make sure your social media legions are ready to go.”

Without knowing precisely who would follow that recipe first, Hewitt was correct. Late on Friday, Cruz created media buzz with news of his “big speech,” accompanied by his wife, in Lynchburg, Va., on Monday.

Digital outreach helps set the public stage for “big” presidential candidate announcements, generates national and local news media coverage, helps seed grassroots interest, and attracts donations to campaign coffers and to outside fundraising groups that back the contenders.

For a host of reasons, April is the likely month for many candidate announcements because it begins the second quarter of the Federal Election Commission reporting cycle, and presidential aspirants who have formally filed will have three months to stockpile contributions before their war chests become perceived barometers of electability. 

Rand Paul is expected to announce his White House intentions April 7 in Kentucky, where he is also up for Senate re-election. (Kentucky amended its laws to permit Paul to compete for both offices simultaneously.) After an official kickoff in Louisville, the conservative libertarian wants to barnstorm through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. 

Paul is courting likely voters face to face in all the traditional ways. But political analysts also describe him as especially comfortable with social media and its proven capacity to help mobilize followers, especially young people.

Paul, a physician, is an early adopter of Snapchat, the photo-messaging app that has expanded into news dissemination. He’s also an avid Twitter user, known for his 140-character tussles with competitors. Paul will draw on his social media acumen to build momentum ahead of his official launch. He appeared at the South by Southwest tech festival in Austin, Texas, last week to tout his support for online civil liberties, and to explain his opposition to net neutrality, which he perceives as government interference with the Internet.

Marco Rubio also is expected to launch a White House bid in April. The Florida senator traveled to the early primary states on a book tour this year, promoting himself as a fresh face with new ideas for governing in the 21st century. Rubio’s background as the son of Cuban immigrants has become a key component in his stump speeches. He laments that his American-dream biography is less attainable than in 1956, when his parents arrived in the United States.

Rubio is considered one of his party’s most effective orators, and a presidential launch is likely to capitalize on his communications skills, his youth at age 43, and perhaps his vibrant Miami home base. Florida is where Rubio demonstrated an underdog’s grit, coming from behind to win a Senate seat in 2010. 

The Republican governors and former governors eyeing the White House (and currently leading in polls) are unlikely to enter the race before the summer, according to their statements and information shared by their advisers.

During a recent tour in South Carolina, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he would make a formal announcement “within the next few months.” But to help stoke a sense of anticipation before then, his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, assured Republicans via a fundraising email last week (for the “Run Jeb Run Fund”)  that she overcame her initial resistance to her son’s 2016 ambitions and now thinks he should be the next president.

Bush, who included his BlackBerry in his official state portrait, has demonstrated the viral utility of the Internet to announce political intentions. He used Facebook late last year to unveil his plans to travel and meet with fellow Republicans before deciding whether to seek the office once held by his father and brother. He announced his political action committee, Right to Rise, through two self-made Instagram videos — one in English and the other in Spanish —encouraging viewers to visit his website.

One sign of how Bush plans in merge old platforms and new technology in his campaign came last week, when he broadcast his speech at a fundraiser in Atlanta using the new live-stream app called Meerkat[TK1] , which allowed him to invite his 170,000 Twitter followers to watch in real time (385 of them did so, including many reporters, through the app that has been taking the political world and the 2016 campaign trail by storm).

But there is a limit to what social media can do for a candidate, and there are campaign announcement considerations that go beyond technology. For some candidates, stressing tradition is paramount, no matter the platform.

Republicans close to Scott Walker and familiar with the Wisconsin governor’s biography expect his official presidential campaign announcement in July, probably in his home state. Although Walker has opened an office in Iowa, Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host in Milwaukee, said he would be “shocked” if Walker, whose political achievements at home are central to his message to national voters, does not appear at the Walker family house in Wauwatosa when he officially launches his bid. “He's a Midwesterner and comes from modest means. It shows that he's not a rich guy,” Sykes said. 

Among governors, announcing presidential ambitions from their home states can be symbolic and deemed a must-do format. But there are many exceptions, and the importance of geography to the decisions about how campaigns are launched has ebbed since the Internet opened new doors to instantaneous national messaging. That’s especially true for governors who need to quickly springboard beyond their home turf because their states are identified with the opposing party, or seem out of sync with early primary states. 

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his presidential campaign through Facebook and launched his race in Iowa, the first caucus state. Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney announced his campaign with wife Ann in front of a picturesque barn in New Hampshire. His advance team relied on a farm stocked with cheering supporters as the backdrop for Romney’s message that America was “in peril” under President Obama.

After formally announcing his aspirations in late 1979, Ronald Reagan traveled to a county fair in Philadelphia, Miss., as the first stop in his 1980 general election campaign. Outdoors on a warm day in August following the GOP convention, he wooed Southern white Democrats with a speech about states’ rights.

Reagan went on to win in an age when there was no Internet or social media. Fellow Republicans Pawlenty and Romney, decades later, tapped the digital tools available to them. Perhaps the different ways they chose to launch their campaigns contributed little to how their bids ultimately ended.

But that’s a guess, and in 2016, an army of campaign digital strategists won’t guess. Appealing persuasively to likely supporters, identifying enough of them, and getting them to the polls will involve Internet-tilted political calculations from the start.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Caitlin Huey-Burns is a reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at

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