Digital Strategies Fuel 2016 Campaign Launch Decisions

Digital Strategies Fuel 2016 Campaign Launch Decisions
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Rand Paul sends Snapchats, Jeb Bush makes his own Instagram videos, and Hillary Clinton comments on current events and policy through Twitter. Soon, they may all be broadcasting major speeches and private events through Meerkat—if they haven't already. In the social-media-driven world of modern politics, "digital first" is the mantra of presidential campaigns.

As if to underscore that point, Ted Cruz announced the official launch of his campaign for the Oval Office through a simple tweet just after midnight Monday morning. “I’m running for President and I hope to earn your support,” said the tweet, which included a link to a 30-second video. The conservative firebrand is the first potential candidate to enter the 2016 race, and will kick off his campaign at Liberty University on Monday, the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act.

Digital strategies—once novelties in 2004, add-ons in 2008 and must-haves by 2012—are now the engine rooms of presidential campaigns. The considerations about digital, touching every aspect of presidential bids, even influence how and when the campaigns for the White House will launch, experts told RCP in interviews.

“This is where you're going to set the tone for your messaging,” Will Ritter, advance director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and co-founder of digital strategies firm Poolhouse, told RCP when asked how candidates will kick off their bids his year. “It’s about marrying the fresh platforms with an old rule: get to people where they are.”

That means a host of candidates from both parties are anxious to make favorable impressions from Day One, and in Hillary Clinton’s case, that means crafting a public announcement that cinches old and new voter alliances to her rationale for governing in the wake of President Obama’s tenure and her primary defeat in 2008. 

“You have to have it right or you’re not going to win,” said Josh Ross, a partner at Trilogy Interactive and a former senior digital strategy adviser with the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign and John Kerry’s team in 2004. “You need to be highly aware of your audience and you have to take those considerations into account as you tailor your launch.”

To ignite that forward motion requires integrated digital expertise, including advertising, online fundraising, website content and data presentation, plus key data analytics aimed at multiple audiences, ideally sustainable by campaigns at full tilt for two days or more after the launch.

As tradition demands, candidates will travel to key states immediately after their announcements and bank on local news media coverage there. But from the first moment they declare their candidacies, they will seek to control the courtship of specific populations of voters using tech tools that remove the guesswork and gut decisions from campaign introductions and storytelling.

Nothing in this election cycle is supposed to be unmeasured, untested, untargeted or static when it comes to mobilizing target voters to back candidates and get to the polls. If a campaign website page is blue and an online “donate” button is red, there are metrics behind those choices. If a candidate speaks directly to a camera for an online video message, the setting, the words, the duration — and the recipients — will be selected for maximum impact. Television ad buys will be executed using unique campaign data rather than mass ratings, which means that sophisticated campaigns internalize astounding amounts of information about individual voters and tribes of voters. 

When well executed, igniting a new national presidential campaign with digitally injected fuel is expensive.

For example, when Hillary Clinton is ready to unveil her candidacy, expected in a few weeks, social media optimization and other digital techniques at her launch will require significant money, coordination, and manpower. Social media optimization (SMO) is a fancy term for digital marketing that builds awareness and support by strategically driving traffic through Facebook, Twitter and other sites, and by engaging directly with online audiences using analytic tools.

“That day will be a multimillion-dollar day,” Ross predicted, adding he had no inside information about Clinton’s specific plans.

In 2012, Obama won re-election backed by $1.1 billion raised by his campaign and outside Democratic groups, a stunning amount narrowly exceeded by Mitt Romney’s tally. Fundraisers and experts think the 2016 election will burn through $3 billion to $5 billion. The campaigns and their many surrogate support groups and benefactors will spend hundreds of millions more on digital and online data analytic efforts this election than in 2012.

In 2008, when Clinton lost to Obama, the iPhone was just a year old, with the release of the Apple iPad still two years into the future. Twitter was tiny compared with today’s more than 200 million users a month, not to mention the more than 300 million users of photo-sharing site Instagram, which did not exist until Clinton was secretary of state. In 2008, Clinton had a BlackBerry. In 2015, she says she uses an iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and retains her own, controversial, email server.

Much has changed, as  Clinton acknowledged in a speech this month in which she encouraged progressive female candidates to strive for elective office at all levels of government.  Referring to candidates who “have won and those who have lost,” she added, “and I’ve been both.”

“You actually learn more from losing,” she said.

A Little Help From Technology

On a cold Saturday in January 2007, Clinton launched her presidential bid via a video message posted to her campaign’s website. Seated on a sofa in her home, speaking directly to the camera, she casually contrasted her beliefs with some of President Bush’s policies and announced she was launching a national “conversation.”

“With a little help from modern technology,” Clinton said, the conversation could take place using “live online video chats” beginning two days after her announcement.

Even reliance on a website has evolved in the intervening years. “It’s not a place where people are going to find news and information about a candidate the way they used to do,” Ross said, noting Clinton’s international reputation and well-understood biography. “There is a very different set of considerations for Hillary Clinton than for the people on the other side.”

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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