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Democrats must evolve their voter communication strategies

Photo illustration/Nicole Vas

“I got a call from Bill Clinton!” my grandmother informed me one day many years ago, thrilled that the president of the United States had taken time out of his busy schedule to call her. But he hadn’t. Instead, it was her first encounter with an exciting new technology – robocalls – which were used to remind voters to get out and cast a ballot. Wow, did she kvell about this experience and tell all her friends to go vote for her friend Bill. 

And just like that, political consultants had a new tool in their arsenal. Several campaigns innovated these pre-recorded calls. But eventually, they became a commodity that every local candidate abused until voters rarely answer their phones on Election Day.

I have faced these diminishing returns on every campaign in my career. As Barack Obama’s social media strategist in 2008, I pushed his leadership to spend more resources on MySpace, BlackPlanet and MiGente. During the 2016 cycle, I advised Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign to spend more advertising dollars on Twitter Cards and Snapchat Filters. While each of these platforms helped campaigns reach more African Americans, Latinx and young voters, it would have been a giant mistake to recommend spending the same amount of scarce resources on them a cycle later.

Campaigns need to keep evolving their communications tactics to match the constant shifts in where base voters receive news. Unfortunately, all the reports about the proliferation of fake news that may negatively affect young voters on Facebook seem a bit ill-informed since this key demographic barely uses the platform anymore. They have long since moved to Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and Twitch. As my nephew told me, “Facebook is for Boomers.”

We are all watching history repeat itself with those unsolicited peer-to-peer text messages that campaigns first used in 2016. This spammy innovation to traditional SMS programs was added to skirt FCC rules around blasting illegal unsubscribed text, something that people had never seen on their cell phones before. And by this past election cycle, this tactic was adopted by hundreds of campaigns even as their engagement rates plummet. If Democrats don’t evolve their strategies, imagine what these spam text campaigns are going to look like by 2022?

Not only are technology platforms becoming less and less effective each day, but traditional news sources are suffering hits to both their viewership and credibility. Gallup recently found that Americans’ trust in traditional news outlets has declined to the second-lowest rating in recorded history.

There are consequences for failing to develop new communications strategies for key constituents that have clearly shifted. According to Targetsmart, early numbers in this year’s gubernatorial election in New Jersey for 18- to 29-year-olds were down by 6.9 percent from 2020 voting tallies; and Virginia’s numbers among the same demographic were down by 6.3 percent. Remember, these 18- to 29-year-olds tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic when they are inspired to vote. 

For Democrats, the problem is larger than just finding the next social media trend. It’s about finding better ways to engage consistently with base voters. In Virginia alone, the Latinx/Hispanic population is almost 10 percent of the populationTerry McAuliffe, who just lost his race for governor, had a fully translated Spanish-language homepage on his website, but it did not provide a quality user experience. While the homepage offered directions on how to contribute in Spanish, it sent Spanish-speaking voters immediately to an English-only contribution page.

The campaign did the same with Spanish language social media efforts — which clicked through to their English-only Facebook and Twitter pages. These tactics of creating a translated section on a website or a Spanish-language mailer for appearance’s sake in 2021 are political malfeasance and must be retired. 

It’s time that the Democratic Party starts truly communicating early and often with its key constituents in authentic ways for the critical 2022 election. 

Democrats must fix their technology infrastructure to better engage with their base voters. It’s time to finally have a payment gateway that works in multiple languages. They must evolve mobile communication beyond peer-to-peer text messaging and be honest that these are not personal messages or interactive conversations anymore, but spam announcements. 

Democrats must also experiment with how to talk with key audiences in new ways. Why not try regular political Twitch events, run social media in multiple languages, evolve Instagram Live events or experiment with original video content on TikTok?

McAuliffe’s campaign challenged the law of diminishing returns on email fundraising and sent upwards of 15 emails a day to squeeze every last dime out of donors. How much longer do we think this strategy will work before voters unsubscribe?

Now is the time to find new ways to reach larger audiences and modernize our strategies for engaging everyone from young voters to grandmas.

Scott Goodstein was the external online director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in charge of the campaign’s social media platforms, mobile technology and lifestyle marketing. He was a lead digital strategist on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign and is the founder of CatalystCampaigns.com.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Facebook Mobile applications MySpace Political campaign Political communication Snapchat Social media Terry McAuliffe Twitch Twitter Youth vote in the United States

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