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Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up to volunteers phone-banking at his south side campaign office in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., January 13, 2020.
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Volunteers making calls get a 👍 from Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
COMING TO A PHONE NEAR YOU

The hot new ways political consultants will try to win your vote

Atlanta
Jeremy B. Merrill
By Jeremy B. Merrill

Investigative reporter

From our Obsession

The New Propaganda

What are the new weapons in the arsenal of influence?

Teams of political minds are looking for fresh ways to convince you to pick their candidate, and yesterday about a few hundred political strategists from both parties got together to swap ideas and war stories.

They gathered at the Reed Awards conference in Atlanta, and I stopped by to learn, straight from the horse’s mouth, how political consultants talk about their hot new tools for reaching voters, selling ads, and getting messages into your phone over the next nine months.

Hi! I know you!

Sometimes the best campaign ad isn’t an ad at all. A text or a phone call from one of your real-life friends might be more likely to convince you to vote, donate, or change your mind about who to support. Democrats are considered better than Republicans at “relational organizing” for now, perhaps because they’re practicing in the primary.

Usually, the friend texting you is just a die-hard partisan volunteering their time. But the Wall Street Journal reports that Michael Bloomberg’s campaign is paying $2,500 a month for part-time “deputy digital organizers” to text everyone in their contacts once a week.

The value here could dwindle, though, once the “friend” is actually a years-ago high school classmate. (At least they’re not pitching a multilevel marketing scheme?)

“Over-the-top” streaming TV ads

Political ads are coming to Hulu and other streaming-TV services. As more and more Americans “cut the cord” and watch TV on their phones and computers, traditional cable and broadcast TV buys won’t reach them. So the political campaigns are following the voters.

“You’re getting TV eyeballs for digital prices,” said Christine Bachman of CDB Political. Ads on streaming platforms marry an advantage of TV—a much longer time to communicate a message—with some aspects of digital ads, like low cost, precise microtargeting of specific voters, and the ability to quickly determine whether an ad is working.

Some campaigns even choose to pay the platforms extra for unskippable ads.

As Quartz has reported, many of these streaming platforms take advantage of another quirk of their not-quite-digital, not-quite-TV status: no disclosure of who’s paying for ads, unlike Facebook and Google’s ad archives or paper filings collected by the FCC.

Testing on digital before running elsewhere

Many campaigns use separate consultants to run their direct mail, TV, and digital advertising. If those consultants cooperate, which they don’t always do, campaigns can test new ads on digital platforms—where ads can start running in minutes and their success can be measured after just a few hours. Then they can move the best-performing text, images, or video to slower, more expensive traditional methods like TV ads and snail mail.

Sticking with Facebook

Despite all the hubbub, Facebook can’t be replaced as a tool for politics, especially for “down-ballot” races for state legislatures, local offices, or obscure state-level positions.

“A lot of state [legislative] candidates run very barebones digital, so that’s where they live: Facebook and Google,” Bachman said. Those platforms make it super easy to start advertising on your own.

But maybe ditching Google

But Google has banned campaigns from targeting their ads with custom lists of voters—or to geographic areas smaller than a zip code. I heard some political digital strategists say they’ll cut back on Google advertising.

That’s because, to them, microtargeting isn’t a means to some nefarious, Cambridge Analytica-esque end. It’s just a way to put a message about policy issues in front of the people who care about them; school messages in front of parents and social security in front of seniors, for instance.

In this polarized age, to these consultants, microtargeting is a way to avoid putting your candidate’s ads in front of opponent’s supporters. At best, that’s a waste of money. But it could be even worse: Poorly directed ads could motivate someone who would’ve skipped election day to vote against your candidate.

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