Inside a Digital Campaign Strategy: A Republican Perspective
With the third of November fast approaching, the campaign efforts of both political parties are in high gear. For insights into Republican election strategies — particularly those of a digital nature — GLG recently met with Tyler Brown, a GLG Network Member and former Director of Digital Strategy at the Republican National Committee (RNC). Brown, who served in multiple senior roles at the RNC over consecutive presidential cycles, helped the committee build its digital infrastructure from a six-person staff to one of the largest and most effective operations in Republican politics. Below are a few select excerpts from our broader conversation.
How are digital campaigns and spending on digital efforts different from traditional campaigns and media buys?
Reporters and the media still struggle to grasp the differences. They tend to focus on campaigns as horse races, looking at who’s ahead and behind in the polls, who has more money in the bank, and who is spending more on advertising, especially television advertising. But that’s the traditional lens.
Television advertising is about delivering a central message. It’s a one-way source of communication. At a presidential level, it’s about targeting states or media markets to amplify that one-way message as much as possible. Digital media spending is much different because the medium is effectively two-way. You can reach out to users and provide them with a call to action, and they are able to respond and follow up. This could result in gaining additional volunteers, growing your email list, raising funds, or building online advocates to share your message. So in addition to spending money on television in places where you need to convince people to vote for you, namely swing states, you also do work in states that are not up for grabs but could be a large source of volunteer activity, mobilization, and fundraising. As a result, where and how you spend money tends to be a lot different than in traditional campaigns.
If that’s the case, is the messaging different?
The short answer is yes. In traditional campaigns, you’re likely to talk about so-called wedge issues, meaning those on which people tend to break one way or another, such as economic growth issues, which are important to the right, and women’s choice, which is important to the left. You’re trying to form a consensus around some key issues that a majority of voters can connect with.
In a digital campaign, you often are speaking to people who are very active politically. They’re what we would call high-information voters. They consume tons of political news on the left or the right, and because of that you may be speaking to more niche or more extreme issues. As a result, you’re not so much trying to reach a consensus, but instead speaking to deeply felt beliefs either on the left or on the right.
Secondly, the platforms are different. When you buy TV time, you know for certain your message will run, and when it will run. On digital platforms — and Facebook is the big one — you’re bidding for impressions. Platform algorithms make decisions about serving your ads depending on engagement, “likes” and clicks, which creates an incentive to provide electrifying content and messaging.
What’s the current regulatory framework for digital campaigning?
It’s a patchwork. There are federal regulations that protect personal information, but the rest largely is a matter of guidelines set by the individual platforms as to what they allow and don’t allow. I think part of the reason why Congress has not gotten involved in this issue and why you haven’t seen as much regulatory action is that it’s really hard to define political speech and draw a line separating policy discussions from campaigning.
What about “fake news”?
This gets to the role of the media. With more news sources now available, some ascribe to the traditional role of media as trying to provide objective reporting and information. But others — on both the right and the left — now feel there is merit in providing values-based journalism. With all the many outlets providing their own version and context of events, who’s to say which is the fake news? What’s more, from a campaign strategy point of view, the multiplicity of news outlets means the notion of trying to control the message — like the strategies of James Carville in 1992 or Lee Atwater in 1988 — has been thrown out the window. Once news or information goes out, you don’t have control over it anymore. That’s why shaping your candidate’s voice and the issues they talk about are so important.
What’s your assessment of each campaign’s digital ground game to date?
The Republicans had an advantage going into this because they have been building their effort for a long time, and because incumbents always have an advantage in that they are able to keep their organization together and operate through the party committee. Challengers must to go through a primary and having limited financial resources to build that operation, so the Biden campaign is playing a catch-up game right now.
What’s your view on polling?
I believe there are distinctions between what you will see showing up in polling data versus online activity. Again, online does not represent a scientific sample; it’s more a reflection of intensity and activity, which again is not scientific in terms of who’s going to go out and vote. But it can be representative of how media’s being interpreted, and how information is being disseminated, collected, and amplified to prospective voters. So, I think it’s important, but not a way to interpret the horse race itself.
About Tyler Brown
Tyler Brown is the President and founder of Hadron Strategies. Drawing from over a decade of political experience at the highest level, Tyler helps clients develop and execute strategies to attack complex business challenges. Tyler served in multiple senior roles at the Republican National Committee over consecutive presidential cycles. With his leadership, the committee built its digital infrastructure from a six-person staff to one of the largest and most effective digital, data, and technology operations in Republican politics. During his tenure, the RNC broke new ground in online voter registration and turnout, experienced record-breaking fundraising success, and achieved historic electoral victories at the federal, state, and local level. Over the course of his career, Tyler has successfully guided campaigns, organizations, companies, and educational institutions to reimagine their capabilities in the digital age. With data-driven solutions, he has helped clients maximize existing resources and accomplish goals impacting their bottom lines.
This article is adapted from the August 28, 2020, GLG teleconference “Presidential Election Forecast: Republican Perspective.” If you would like access to this teleconference or would like to speak with Tyler Brown, or any of our more than 700,000 experts, contact us.
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