The Changing Nature of Political Campaigning


The 2020 election cycle was like no other we’ve seen before, due in part to the nature of the coronavirus pandemic and how we receive information, to the explosion of social media platforms, and to the influx of younger and more diverse voters. These changes touched candidates at every level, from school boards to state legislatures to the presidential campaigns. The who, the what, the how, the cost, and the timing of campaigning have been transformed forever. What can be done to prepare and keep up?  

How will the digital ad front evolve? 

One of the big questions is whether Facebook will continue to accept political ads next election cycle. There’s a real possibility the platform may simply say no. It is guaranteed, no matter their decision, that major changes will be taking place that make it crucial for campaigns, candidates, PACs, and advocacy groups to start building authentic and engaged communities. This will also make it important that they own their community’s digital data in order to connect in a grassroots manner that isn’t reliant on one platform or 3rd party data sources. 

Takeaway: Own your data.



The importance of your field game? 

One of the greatest strategies for your campaign is a solid field and ground game. One of the biggest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was the halt it placed on in-person canvassing, events, and fundraising. These efforts were stopped entirely or drastically reduced to literature drops, drive-through events, and online Zooms in the early part of the pandemic. 

But what impact the lack of canvassing and in-person connection may have had for campaigns in some key local races is a legitimate question and one organizers will need to explore. 

How about the other changes brought on by the pandemic? There were undoubtedly many new techniques learned in terms of digital voter contact. Which of those innovations will stick and which will be left in the rearview? With careful evaluation and a tactic-by-tactic assessment, new best practices will emerge. 

Takeaway: Plan for both an in-person AND digital voter field game.

How quickly will alternative platforms and outreach rise? 

At the local level, some major movement was made with candidates using social media live streams, more organized, targeted email fundraising, and SMS strategies. They also were leveraging more social media platforms: Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube vs. only Facebook and YouTube. They incorporated Zoom and other digital platforms and supporting software into everyday campaigning, too. 

From Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) well-watched Twitch stream to the Biden campaign’s in-game outreach to players in “Fortnite”andAnimal Crossing: New Horizons,” Democrats on the national stage certainly embraced new avenues this cycle. 

Conservative voters rushed to download Parler, a new social media app, post-election to make it the most downloaded app in the country, and Rumbler, a video platform like YouTube has seen notable gains as well. 

Takeaway: Develop a non-traditional digital game plan. 

What will the final spending numbers tell us? 

Final numbers are yet to be crunched obviously, but we know that more money has been spent on digital advertising in 2020 than in any previous election. Google and Facebook spend, just from the Trump and Biden campaigns, topped $446 million through Oct. 18, according to ACRONYM’s digital dashboard

Locally, we saw very similar trends in down-ballot candidates leveraging digital advertising. Live streaming app ads, internet, and local radio, podcasts, and cable TV also saw a rise. 

Campaigns and Elections shared insights at the national level, “TV advertising surged to historically high levels at the same time. Wesleyan Media Project tracked more than $1.5 billion in ad spending on TV, digital and radio in the presidential race between April 9 and October 25 — $991 million of that was from the candidates themselves. Biden outspent Trump by some $75 million on broadcast TV and just under $70 million on local cable, according to Wesleyan, while Trump held a $35.3 million edge on digital. And down-ballot, many House races saw unheard-of levels of TV ad spending over the campaigns final weeks.”

Takeaway: Expect to spend more during every phase of the campaign.  

What comes next?

We know the campaign field game has changed. Will the next round of elections bring a hybrid of virtual and in-person campaigning? As we debrief and extract learnings and new best practices from the 2020 elections, we’ll need to rethink strategies and tactics that have worked in the past.

Political strategists and campaign managers will have their work cut out for them, as new challenges, social media platforms, and hot button issues emerge. Certainly, fundraising will need to start sooner, the need for platform-specific content and audience-tailored messaging will surely increase. 

As for the rest, time and testing will start to reveal what the changing nature of political campaigning looks like.