Some Democratic presidential candidates are upending the conventional playbook for online outreach, building out digital operations that give their campaigns more agility and control in an acknowledgement that the 2020 election will largely be waged online.
Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMisguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE’s (D-Mass.) campaign has kept its content creation and digital ad-buying operations in-house, while Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Lawmakers using leadership PACs as 'slush funds' to live lavish lifestyles: report MORE’s (D-N.Y.) team began taking similar steps in May.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) has created a digital media juggernaut pivoting on live video and an organizing app designed to allow a massive community of volunteers and supporters to feed information to the campaign’s voter database.
The efforts underscore how eager the candidates are to stand out online, especially in a crowded Democratic primary field in which more than two dozen candidates must compete for attention, support and, perhaps most importantly, donations.
“If you want to move voters, you need to reach them where they are, and they’re spending more and more time online,” said Alex Kellner, a managing director at the Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive and a veteran digital campaign strategist.
He said that Warren’s team was among those with a standout digital strategy.
“Elizabeth Warren has across every department scaled up aggressively,” he said. “Her field team is one of the biggest, her comms team is really senior and built out. They’ve made an investment in building their operation early.”
Warren’s team is holding its digital operations close, creating digital advertisements and online content in-house and buying ad space themselves as it looks to move away from the traditional model of contracting out such work to consulting firms.
The goal is to give the campaign more direct control over the content it puts out online by tasking staffers working exclusively for the candidate with spearheading online messaging and ad-buying efforts.
Tara McGowan, the CEO of the progressive digital organization ACRONYM, said that handling digital ad-buying in house comes with its advantages. Unlike employees at outside consulting firms, in-house staffers are involved with the campaigns “day in and day out” and may have a deeper understanding of the voters they’re trying to reach.
“We’ve been encouraging campaigns and organizations alike to bring their digital ad buying in-house for a long time now and are thrilled to see more campaigns take this approach,” McGowan, a former digital director for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, said.
“Even the best consultants have to juggle multiple clients at a time, splitting their attention in ways that can make their campaigns more expensive and less effective,” she added.
Gillibrand, likewise, started taking steps earlier this year to move her campaign’s digital and ad-buying operations in-house and began phasing out the role of Anne Lewis Strategies, the digital firm where she spent more than $825,000 in the first quarter of 2019 – more than a quarter of the roughly $3 million she raised in that time frame.
Meredith Kelly, her communications director, told The New York Times in May that the campaign had seen its daily donations increase by 1.5 times since April following the move.
Some strategies, however, are skeptical of the movement towards in-house digital production and ad-buying, arguing that while some campaigns are capable of hiring the talent needed to run such complex operations, others are eschewing the experience that often comes with hiring an outside consultant.
“Can I go get editing software and take it in-house? Sure,” one Democratic consultant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the candidates’ strategies, said. "The quality of what you really want to in our business is the quality of the editor. If you’re going to bring this stuff in house, can you get the quality of editors that we have?”
Warren and Gillibrand also aren’t alone in handling at least some digital content production internally. “On the digital side today, all of the campaigns are going to have an in-house social media, digital component,” the consultant said.
Sanders, meanwhile, has largely built his digital strategy on a long-held idea that the most effective way to communicate with voters is directly, his aides say.
In addition to investing heavily in digital ads – his campaign spent roughly $1.5 million on them in the first quarter of the year – Sanders’s team is embracing live content on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitch, the online video site known for video game streaming.
That Sanders has sought to bypass traditional media channels to reach voters isn’t new for the Vermont senator.
As the mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, Sanders created and starred in a public access TV show dubbed “Bernie Speaks with the Community.” And the Vermont independent has long employed editors and videographers in his Senate office to create direct-to-voter content.
“This has been Bernie’s project throughout his entire political career going back to the 1980s when he had his public access show,” Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’s digital communications director, said. “If we can elevate the voices of everyday Americans who often aren’t seen in the corporate media.”
“The live streaming and Twitch brings another element into it, which is not only are we talking to voters, but we can have a conversation with voters,” he said.
For Sanders and others, the internet has also emerged as one of their best organizing tools. Earlier this year, Sanders’s campaign rolled out BERN, a desktop app that allows supporters and volunteers to log the names and background information of people they talk to about Sanders. Miller-Lewis said the campaign will eventually roll out a mobile version of the app.
The central concept behind BERN, Miller-Lewis said, is to help digitize the senator’s distributed organizing operation, which seeks to organize supporters in places where there is no paid campaign staff. That strategy was key to Sanders’s early success in the 2016 Democratic nominating contest.
Another 2020 hopeful, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' Democrats' reconciliation bill breaks Biden's middle class tax pledge We have a presidential leadership crisis — and it's only going to get worse MORE (D-Calif.), launched an online program in May, dubbed Camp Kamala, intended to train young supporters on how to use the campaign’s organizing tools. Her team said on Friday that some 16,000 volunteers had completed the program earlier this week.
There’s another factor looming over the Democratic candidates’ digital push: President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE, whose social media presence and focus on digital advertising helped power him to victory in 2016.
Trump’s campaign manager heading in 2020 is Brad ParscaleBrad ParscaleAides tried to get Trump to stop attacking McCain in hopes of clinching Arizona: report MORE, who ran the campaign’s digital marketing strategy in 2016. And now, as president, Trump has an even more influential platform online.
“You cannot defeat Donald Trump if you can’t compete with him on digital,” Miller-Lewis said. “And Bernie Sanders is, I think, in the unique position right now to compete with Donald Trump in that space.”
--Updated on July 15 at 8: 12 a.m.