A new Democratic Congress, a lost shutdown battle, a criminal investigation closing in on his inner circle — by all accounts, many would think that President Donald Trump is on a clear path to defeat in the next presidential election. But if you look at the massive organization his campaign is building online, it’s Trump who’s already winning 2020.
As someone who has run Democratic communications and media programs that focus on reaching and mobilizing voters online, what Trump has been able to build for his reelection campaign terrifies me. It has also made me a firm believer that unless Democrats recognize our own strategic shortcomings and tactical disadvantages, we may never win back the White House or build long-term progressive power.
We currently live in a time of political, social and technological disruption. The last time Democrats had a broad bench of candidates running for president, Twitter didn’t exist and the iPhone was one year old. Since then, the explosion of social media and mobile apps have transformed how we live our lives and how political elections are won or lost. Donald Trump’s campaign has taken advantage of these changes to build a highly strategic reelection campaign that any potential 2020 candidate should pay attention to:
His campaign manager is a “digital guy”
By elevating Brad Parscale (his 2016 Digital Director) to Campaign Manager, Trump is signaling that digital won’t just have a seat at the table — it will be an integral piece of every aspect of his reelection bid. From prioritizing digital channels over traditional paid media to leveraging social media platforms to fire up his base and raise money, he is utilizing a modern playbook to win.
Building massive lists through digital investments
For months (even before the 2018 midterm elections), Donald Trump’s campaign has consistently been a top political spender on Facebook focused on acquiring voter data and building potential supporter lists. Over the past few weeks, for example, Trump’s campaign spent a combined $778,000 on Facebook ads alone. That’s compared to $194,000 that Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden taps big bank skeptic to for top regulatory post Harris unveils 0M commitment to new global health fund Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam MORE spent on Facebook the week she launched her presidential campaign and just $99,000 Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' UN secretary-general blasts space tourism MORE spent over the last three weeks combined.
Defining the narrative
Trump's campaign has excelled at leveraging digital ad dollars to keep the controversies surrounding the Trump administration from reaching his supporter base online. Take the border wall and shutdown debate: In the days leading up to Trump’s primetime address this month, his campaign purchased the YouTube masthead ad space to drive their message.
Those ads reached tens of millions of voters in the most highly trafficked ad space available online, seen by every person who visits the YouTube homepage.
Coupled with President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE’s own tweets, thousands of Facebook ads placed by his reelection campaign, and dozens of conservative “media outlets” driving the same narrative, Trump’s chosen message blanketed the feeds and phones of voters nationwide. Democrats, on the other hand, ran just a few hundred ads online leading up to the speech to push their own messages, paling in comparison to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars the Trump organization and conservative media organizations leveraged online to capitalize on the moment.
Where do Democrats go from here?
There’s no denying that Democrats are entering the 2020 race at a disadvantage. However there are ways we can make up for this lost ground if we make a conscious effort to do so.
First, Democrats need to prioritize digital strategies. Democrats need to recognize that people increasingly live most every aspect of their lives — from the people they talk to, to the media they consume — online. So every aspect of a campaign must meet voters online as well as off.
Democrats must center their campaigns around digital talent and strategies. The investment in digital advertising can’t be an add-on to television budgets, but must be at parity with them.
Organizations also must see digital not simply as a way to raise money, but as a strategy to build networks of organizers and supporters who will amplify their messages and reach voters through the people they trust and listen to. That is how a campaign will build a movement that will carry them to victory.
As much as it pains me to say it — Democrats need to take a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook and beat him at his own game. Our democracy and the future of our party depend on it.
Tara McGowan is the founder and CEO of ACRONYM, a progressive c4 organization that ran over $15 million in digital programs to help elect more than 65 Democrats last cycle. She previously ran Priorities USA’s digital team in the 2016 election. Follow her on Twitter @Taraemcg.