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What Democrats Learned From Their Social Media Strategy in 2014

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Democrat social media lessons from 2014
What Democrats Learned From Their Social Media Strategy in 2014

The State of the Union Address marked the beginning of what is likely to be a very busy year in politics. Republicans and Democrats are raising money and building campaign infrastructure to gear up for the 2016 elections.

The Democratic Party’s social media presence is well known as an effective fundraising and political tool. While they may have failed to generate turn out in the recent mid-term elections, social media helped candidates to raise record-breaking amounts of campaign finance money.

Ever since the 2008 Obama Presidential Campaign, Democrats have fine-tuned what has become a nearly unbeatable fundraising machine. How they have done it and what can be learned from their methods is quite interesting.

Millions of Drops in the Bucket

This remarkable success, which has outdone Republican efforts since 2008, is due mainly to the Democrats’ ability to generate many small donations online. This is in very stark contrast to Republican emphasis on large donors, both financially and politically. The ability to raise money from many small donors instead of a few big donors is an obvious source of political capital. Democrats have a stronger claim to populist appeal when they can point to a donor list of millions instead of a few millionaires.

Prior to the 2008 Presidential Campaign, Democrats began focusing on the internet to generate campaign funds. What resulted was a strategy that involved the frequently lampooned histrionic emails, among other tactics such as maintaining a database of donor emails that now has millions of addresses, which has seen Democrats outraising Republicans in four campaigns.

In every campaign since 2008, both parties have demonstrated they have the same level of access to donors willing to give the maximum. Yet in online donations, the 2012 Obama campaign outdid Romney by nearly 2:1.

Why Aren’t Republicans Keeping Up?

While there is no clear answer, it is obvious Republicans cannot match Democrats in small-dollar donations, especially when it comes to mainstream candidates. This is, in part, due to institutional discomfort with changing technologies.

The GOP built a massive base of small-dollar donors through the postal system, which it still taps today, with a pioneering direct mail marketing approach. It makes sense to many candidates and party leaders to invest money up front for direct mail, but not email.

Similarly, the Democratic Campaign Coordinating Committee (DCCC) built a system for generating online small-dollar contributions called ActBlue, which ties the donors to the party instead of a single candidate. This system raised $315 million in the previous election cycle. ActBlue utilizes analytics (“Big Data”) to continually optimize online contribution forms. This means that using information gathered from contributors when filling out the form, they are better able to forecast future donations and readjust strategies.

Where Is the Social Media Angle?

The real story here is how Democrats utilized a comprehensive social media strategy to set and break records during the last cycle. This should be especially surprising because they performed less well than the GOP, indicating a flaw in their strategy that is telling for businesses as well as political candidates.

Technology staff on Democratic campaigns are given authority to formulate the candidate’s platform and are responsible for bringing in contributions. They are held accountable for measured donation levels, and given the staff and resource to carry out their mission. A parallel structure has yet to emerge in the GOP, more beholden to older tactics and large-dollar contributors. This means any technology effort is often a secondary tactic and never the primary focus of the campaign leadership, much less the candidate.

President Obama’s campaign team in 2008 and 2012 is well known for advanced technological ability. These people, such as Harper Reed, are now renowned figures in the industry. These people, who look, act, and think much differently than typical political staff, were given real power to make effective tools that changed the nature of political strategy forever. They built a system called Narwhal that tracked voter and volunteer activity in a variety of ways.

This meant gathering data not only from internal sites, but linking to voters’ social media presences and gleaning useful information aside from what is reported on forms. Resources were allocated utilizing a comprehensive understanding of where they would be most effective. Businesses have been working to incorporate the lessons learned in the Obama presidential campaigns and the recent mid-term election. Just because voters will spend money doesn’t mean they will actually vote.

This is telling for businesses, as well. There is surely much more that can be learned from watching how politicians make use of social media.

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