Opinion | Can Democrats Win Online in 2020?
November 1, 2019
Opinion | Can Democrats Win Online in 2020?
A long time ago, on a different internet — where Photoshopped images of “God Emperor” Donald Trump riding atop a velociraptor were just a faint glimmer in a young meme lord’s eye — the Republicans were in trouble. Barack Obama’s 2008 win over John McCain was heralded as a digital over an analog. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s technological secret weapon to track voters in real time crashed on Election Day. A 2012 profile of Obama’s digital team in The Atlantic exclaimed that the “nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure.” By 2014, the conventional wisdom was that progressives had lapped the Republican Party in the tech space. I heard rumors swirling that some of the Republican National Committee staff were scouring Silicon Valley churches for tech-company hoodies, looking for programmers to hire.
Two years later, the narrative flipped completely. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory was quickly cast as a digital triumph. The campaign successfully harnessed its candidate’s divisive, populist rhetoric to plaster Facebook with ads. The ads worked, in large part because of their incendiary messages. Mr. Trump’s grass-roots support online came from a legion of posters, message board communities and Twitter pundits who flooded the internet with memes, toxic trolling and hyperpartisan pages glorifying the candidate and vilifying his opponents. Democrats were flummoxed.
The Trump wing of the Republican Party appeared to have a structural advantage in online politics — and there was no clear lane in sight for a wonky, hopeful, progressive message. And for the past three years, as Donald Trump has governed by Twitter, Democrats have watched and winced. An unspoken question hangs over the looming presidential election: On an internet built to favor controversy, can Democrats (or anyone less controversial than Mr. Trump) win online in 2020?
If so, a successful challenger will need time, technology, money and inexhaustible shamelessness. As of today, time is running out, money has barely been spent, and one side has a near monopoly on the ability to operate without decorum or scruples.
The Trump campaign already has a healthy head start building up its microtargeting and fund-raising technology. In the digital ad-spend arms race on Facebook and Google, Mr. Trump’s campaign has spent more than the top three Democratic candidates combined to identify and turn out supporters in key states and counties. Arguably more important is the data acquisition play. The Trump campaign is building tools to take advantage of information like mobile location data to learn intensely personal details about potential voters and then hit them with explicitly tailored messages that fire them up.
“Trump has a time advantage we can’t erase,” Shomik Dutta, an Obama campaign vet and the chief executive of Higher Ground Labs, told me recently. “We have to change that by fixing the innovation cycle in progressive politics.”
Mr. Dutta and his Higher Ground partner, Betsy Hoover, project an anxious optimism about their technology’s role next year. Ms. Hoover admits that “technology itself is not a strategy or a culture; it’s a tool that sits on top of those things.” And Mr. Dutta, who throws around startup-y business jargon like “loss aversion,” “churn rate” and “digital exhaust,” is honest about Democrats’ deficiencies — most notably their inability to compete on digital ads.
“If the chief marketing officer for a Fortune 100 company spent less than 15 percent of their ad budget on digital, they’d be fired for incompetence,” he told me. “Democratic campaigns in the aggregate are all spending less than 15 percent on digital right now and that is political and professional malpractice.”
Higher Ground Labs, essentially an incubator for 36 campaign technology companies, aims to do just that, by building tools that the Democratic nominee can use to raise money, conduct modern polling, organize field operations and pump out the candidate’s message. One of its companies called Deck uses survey data to build machine-learning models of possible supporters. Mr. Dutta suggests that it will predict how voters will respond to a given policy or message and then provide real-time suggestions of how to change minds. “It has the brutal honesty of a robot,” Mr. Dutta said. “It’s been tough on some candidates because it will literally say, ‘Sorry, you have a zero percent chance of winning.’”
Purchased advertising is just one part of the 2020 information war. The organic side — real, dedicated supporters spreading messages online — is also a problem for Democrats. Though a few candidates have amassed vibrant online supporters (#YangGang, Bernie Bros), there are concerns that progressive messages, especially from wonkier candidates, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, will be able find attention online against policy-light, image-heavy Trump memes.
Misha Leybovitch, an M.I.T. engineer and former start-up guy, wants to change that. His vision starts with an eight-page emoji-laden Google document titled “Warren’s Meme Team Plan: Saving the nation with selfies & memes.” “The Right understands the importance of Memes,” he writes. “They approach it like war …. we can’t let this be an asymmetric battle …. we fight back, in a way that’s authentic to our values.”
Mr. Leybovitch’s plan involves creating a “distributed network of thousands of hands and brains” to spread Warren’s message across platforms. “One thing I think Trump did really well was crowdsourcing the creativity,” he told me. “If you look at the popular memes, it’s not the stuff his campaign makes. They just amplify it, even if it’s toxic.” His idea is to amass content creators and arm them with templates that work across platforms (images for memes but also filters for platforms like Snapchat and TikTok). “If you give people an easy way to have a good time making things themselves, you can get them to organically spread that message.”
Mr. Leybovitch, who says he has spoken to the Warren campaign about memes and also applied for its deputy C.T.O. position, is optimistic that the right infrastructure and coordination can make Warren plans like a wealth tax and universal child care into base-rallying content. There’s some thin precedent for this. Mr. Leybovitch cited the tens of thousands of selfies Senator Warren takes with supporters at rallies as an indicator that the campaign has learned to tap into and energize its supporters’ enthusiasm online. The selfies are a natural fit, but there’s also something inherently cringe-y about an organized campaign to spark and capture the millennial and Gen Z meme magic. That tends to work only organically.
Tara McGowan, a veteran Democratic strategist who founded Acronym, a progressive digital strategy organization, described part of the legacy Democratic media apparatus as “paralyzed” by an older generation of “consultants with a stranglehold on outdated techniques” who rarely engage online.
“There’s a tendency in our party to be overly risk-averse in our messaging and tactics which can dilute our ability to resonate with voters,” she said. “We don’t need to spread lies or play to people’s insecurities to win, we just need to compete and get our message to voters every single day where they get their information. Right now, we’re not even on the field.” Ms. McGowan says Acronym is trying to sound the alarm and provide a path forward. Political consultants say that means spending more money on political consultants and outmatching Mr. Trump on data collection to identify the two million or so voters who’ll determine the 2020 outcome.
Another central part of the campaign is messaging that doesn’t rely on responding to Mr. Trump. “There is so much noise on these platforms, and we are not playing in those spaces now. We can tell a powerful, true, cohesive story about why this guy is dangerous,” Ms. McGowan said.
That Ms. McGowan and company frame the 2020 online fight as an information war is a step in the right direction for Democrats. Still, there’s an alarming amount of uncertainty with a year to go. As 2016 proved, genuine enthusiasm originates from a compelling general election candidate, who at this point is still unknown.
Just as daunting an obstacle: whether Democrats can win without embracing Republican shamelessness. In the age of viral politics, momentum and political capital derive from a well-rehearsed echo chamber of attention: Social media dictates the news cycle, which is used to book TV appearances or rallies, where candidates can gin up controversy or conflict, which fuels social media.
Donald Trump and Republicans understand this potent combination of content creation and shamelessness. Whether its weekend tweets by the president or Rudy Giuliani’s constant availability to journalists and Fox News hosts, Trumpists flood the zone with misinformation or ragebait. A Photoshopped image of a dog getting the Medal of Honor. Sharpiegate. A Fourth of July military parade. They’re all attention spectacles. When the inevitable outrage comes, they merely double down, with more content. The reaction from their enemies — the surprise at the shamelessness — is even more indignant, which delights supporters. It feeds cable headlines for another day. The result is disheartening, exhausting and politically effective.
But Republicans don’t need to have a monopoly on outrage. Rather than the Trump variety of outrage and fear of the other, the correct blend of righteous progressive outrage — on climate, on inequality and corruption — could compete with the virality of the MAGA message. Outrage, indignation and alarmism — sentiments proven to win online — can be harnessed by Democrats, provided they choose the right candidate.
Whether Democrats can compete with their integrity intact is unclear. But what is clear is that in 2019, one of the few ways to political power is to never, ever stop making content.
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