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.”

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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