Before 2019 draws to a close and we turn our attention fully to the 2020 campaign, here’s a look back at the most important trends from online campaigning that shaped the year. Learn what happened and why it matters.
- New Regulations and Bans on Political Advertising
- Democrats Add Grassroots Donor Thresholds to Debate Requirements
- Trump Campaign Dominates Online
- Tech Platforms Struggle to Balance Free Speech & Protecting Users from Disinformation
- GOP Plays Catch Up On Online Fundraising
- Everyone Had an Opinion About Campaign Logos
- Democracy Is A Global Phenomenon
New Regulations and Bans on Political Advertising
After rolling out new verification requirements and transparency reports for online political ads during the 2018 cycle, major tech platforms including Facebook, Google, and Twitter continued to tweak their advertising policies for political ads.
In October everything changed when Twitter announced it would ban all political ads. A few weeks later, Google announced political advertisers wouldn’t be allowed to use the full suite of audience targeting, including custom matched data. Now, all eyes are on Facebook, which has floated ideas like raising the minimum targetable audience and pre-election blackout periods.
- May 23, 2019: Facebook Curbs Incentives to Sell Political Ads Ahead of 2020 Election (WSJ.com)
- August 14, 2019: Senator calls on Facebook and Google to ban political ad targeting (CNN.com)
- August 28, 2019: Facebook Tightens Rules on Verifying Political Advertisers (NYTimes.com)
- October 22, 2019: Americans Don’t Just Want Facebook to Ban False Political Ads. They Want Them to Ban ALL Political Ads. (CivicScience.com)
- October 25, 2019: This Fake Green New Deal Ad Perfectly Illustrates Facebook’s Bullshit Political Ad Policy (Gizmodo.com)
- October 30, 2019: Twitter drops all political ads in shot at Zuckerberg (Politico.com)
- November 1, 2019: FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub: Don’t abolish political ads on social media. Stop microtargeting. (WashingtonPost.com)
- November 20, 2019: An update on our political ads policy (Blog.google)
- November 22, 2019: Democrats blast Google’s new rules for political ads (CNN.com)
- December 4, 2019: Facebook has floated limiting political ads and labeling that they aren’t fact-checked, riling 2020 campaigns (WashingtonPost.com)
Why It Matters
Limitations on targeting for political advertisers won’t drive campaigns and PACs off of Google/YouTube and Facebook completely but it will change the style of play on the platforms. Rather than narrowly targeted messages to smaller audience, expect Google and Facebook advertising to more closely resemble broadcast advertising but with greater efficiency.
Even though big tech platforms are limiting targeting, campaigns still need to grow their online budgets in 2020; the average voting-aged American spends over six hours every day online.
Democrats Add Grassroots Fundraising Requirement to Primary Debates
In an effort to narrow down a crowded field and empower activists in the party, the DNC implemented grassroots fundraising requirements along with polling thresholds in order for presidential candidates to participate in primary debates.
This requirement forced candidates to invest in list building and online fundraising early in their campaigns, but it also drove online advertising prices sky-high and led to some silly gimmicks.
Some Democrats were frustrated with the requirements, complaining that it enabled trolls to keep some candidates on the debate stage and other candidates, like Senator Cory Booker, off the stage.
- December 27, 2018: The DNC Is Putting Its Thumb on the Scales Again — This Time in the Right Direction (TheIntercept.com)
- February 4, 2019: Democratic presidential hopefuls flock to Facebook for campaign cash (OpenSecrets.org)
- March 7, 2019: How Little Known Andrew Yang May End Up on the 2020 Debate Stage by Gaming the System (TheDailyBeast.com)
- May 30, 2019: New Democratic Debate Rules Will Distort Priorities, Some Campaigns Say (NYTimes.com)
- June 4, 2019: 2020 Democrats Are Literally Begging for $1 on Facebook: “Can You Chip In?” (Vice.com)
- July 30, 2019: Debate rules drive 2020 Dems’ digital ad spending over $31 million (OpenSecrets.org)
- August 9, 2019: Did DNC’s lax debate rules let Republicans hijack the primary? (TheWeek.com)
- August 28, 2019: Facebook Ad Prices Surge Due to Barrage by Democratic Hopefuls (WSJ.com)
Why It Matters
For all of the complaints, it was a smart move by the Democrats because each campaign activated hundreds of thousands of online donors and these fundraising lists will be shared throughout the Left’s ecosystem for 2020 and beyond.
Trump Campaign Dominates Online
Equipped with new data from the Facebook and Google ad transparency reports, we learned that the Trump campaign outspent every other political advertiser this year. This enabled the president’s re-election campaign to raise more money online and his dominance online worried Democrats.
This investment put the campaign in a strong position to capitalize on impeachment with an influx of online donations.
- March 19, 2019: Money, power and data: Inside Trump’s re-election machine (CNN.com)
- March 19, 2019: Another Trump Facebook election (Axios.com)
- April 2, 2019: Democrats: Don’t Let Trump Campaign for Re-election Unoppposed (Crooked.com)
- May 21, 2019: How Trump Is Outspending Every 2020 Democrat on Facebook (NYTimes.com)
- May 24, 2019: Trump Has a Big Head Start on Facebook Messaging, and Democrats Are Worried (MotherJones.com)
- October 16, 2019: Trump Is Winning the Online War (NYTimes.com)
Why It Matters
President Trump’s campaign has been taking advantage of the significant head start it has over their eventual Democrat competitor. While there are efforts on the Left to counter the Trump campaign’s online dominance, it will be months before a nominee emerges and the President’s online operation has been up and running for years.
Tech Platforms Struggle to Balance Free Speech & Protecting Users from Disinformation
The big tech companies continue to struggle in their efforts to tackle fake accounts, foreign interference in elections, and disinformation. Facebook and Twitter, for example, have found safe ground in policing “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” but there’s no consensus on the right way to approach fact checking candidates and their allies.
Years of mistakes by the platforms themselves and ensuing mistrust from both sides of the political aisle have made the problem intractable.
- January 8, 2019: Facebook, Twitter Turn to Right-Leaning Groups to Help Referee Political Speech (WSJ.com)
- January 28, 2019: Facebook to create an independent board to monitor content (AdAge.com)
- March 11, 2019: Facebook backtracks after removing Warren ads calling for Facebook breakup (Politico.com)
- May 29, 2019: Pelosi calls Facebook a ‘willing enabler’ of Russian election meddling (Politico.com)
- June 5, 2019: Americans think “made-up news” is a bigger problem than climate change (NiemanLab.org)
- September 25, 2019: Facebook Confirmed That, Unlike The Rest Of Us, Politicians Don’t Get Fact-Checked (BuzzFeedNews.com)
- October 15, 2019: Facebook Said Politicians Can Lie In Ads. It’s Taking Down Ads From Warren, Biden, And Trump For Other Reasons. (BuzzFeedNews.com)
- October 15, 2019: World Leaders on Twitter: principles & approach (Blog.Twitter.com)
- November 5, 2019: YouTube’s standoff with conservative Heritage Foundation (Axios.com)
- December 17, 2019: Peter Thiel at Center of Facebook’s Internal Divisions on Politics (WSJ.com)
Why It Matters
Remember, the average American adult spends more than six hours every day online and because of their size, the giant tech platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Google, and YouTube will continue to play an outsized role in our elections. It’s important that they get this right and find a solution voters can trust.
Until this year, if you talked about AOC, everyone thought you meant the Architect of the Capitol, the administrative office that maintains the physical plant of Congress, but now it stands for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who as a 29 year old first-time candidate shocked the Democrat establishment with her upset victory over Joe Crowley.
Her down-to-earth, relatable persona was facilitated by social media and the grassroots flocked to her. Her fellow Democrats on the Hill were desperate to learn her social media secrets and politicians on the Left and the Right tried to imitate her success.
- January 17, 2019: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave the Democrats a lesson in how to use Twitter (Mashable.com)
- January 19, 2019: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has more Twitter power than media, establishment (Axios.com)
- January 22, 2019: Incredibly Relatable: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Proving She’s Just Like Us By Wasting Her Life On Social Media (Clickhole.com) [Satire]
- March 25, 2019: AOC Creates Trump Bump of Her Own for News Media (Bloomberg.com)
Why It Matters
Because of her authenticity and ability to drive a message using social media, AOC’s agenda became the agenda of the grassroots on the Left. We see her influence from Capitol Hill to the 2020 campaign trail and nobody knew who she was a year ago.
GOP Plays Catch Up in Online Fundraising
After being swamped by a “green wave” of online, grassroots donations that flipped the House majority in 2018, the GOP wanted to close the gap and focused on creating a donation platform to rival ActBlue. The Republican answer to ActBlue, WinRed, was announced with fanfare in January and after several months of a rough start, a name change and lots of infighting, it finally got off the ground.
But, once it was live, there were important early successes and WinRed empowered Republicans to capitalize on impeachment .
- January 21, 2019: Exclusive: GOP reaches landmark agreement to juice small-dollar fundraising (Politico.com)
- March 26, 2019: GOP Money Machine Stumbles Over Fears Of Putting Data In Trump’s Hands (HuffPost.com)
- May 22, 2019: McConnell cashes in on ‘Cocaine Mitch’ (PublicIntegrity.org)
- July 9, 2019: GOP at war over fundraising (Politico.com)
- August 13, 2019: Trump campaign’s small-dollar donations surge, marking major shift for GOP (FoxNews.com)
- September 25, 2019: GOP cashes in on impeachment (Politico.com)
- October 1, 2019: WinRed, new GOP donor platform, reaps impeachment windfall, rakes in millions since probe launch (FoxNews.com)
- November 22, 2019: Elise Stefanik’s rise tests new GOP fundraising platform WinRed (RollCall.com)
Why It Matters
Even though Republicans have adopted a fundraising technology that mirrors the structure of the Democrats’ ActBlue, there’s still a gap in investment in online list building. Until more Republicans follow the Trump campaign’s lead and invest seriously in their online fundraising program, Democrats will enjoy the upper hand in online fundraising.
Everyone Had an Opinion About Campaign Logos
With more than a dozen Democrats running for President that meant we were introduced to lots of new campaign logos, and everyone had their opinions, jokes, and observations. There were two trends worth noting: many of the logos featured color palettes outside of the traditional red, white, and blue spectrum and they also used bold typography to stand out.
- January 14, 2019: Was Julian Castro 2020 sign inspired by Bud Light can? (ABC13.com)
- January 21, 2019: Kamala Harris’ presidential logo is nod to first black woman who ran for president (FoxNews.com)
- February 9, 2019: The new rules of political design (CNN.com)
- April 15, 2019: New Logo and Identity for Pete Buttigieg by Hyperakt (UnderConsideration.com)
- April 30, 2019: The 2020 campaign gets colorful (Axios.com)
- September 12, 2019: How 2020 Democrats could rewrite the rules of political typography (Yello.Substack.com)
Why It Matters
As more parts of a campaign happen online, the role of design and branding will continue to increase. This is very difficult to get right and while presidential campaigns have the resources to do it well, all candidates need to spend more time thinking about their visual brand.
Democracy Is A Global Phenomenon
Major elections happened around the world this year. In India there were concerns about disinformation and WhatsApp. In Canada, more people heard about the danger of fake news than actually saw fake news. In Australia, an innovative and disciplined campaign helped Prime Minister Scott Morrison return to government. And in the UK a creative digital strategy helped Brexit finally get across the finish line.
In other parts of the world, like Catalonia and Hong Kong, technology has helped empower populist movements through distributed organizing and leaderless resistance.
- April 24, 2019: The World Just Witnessed the First Entirely Virtual Presidential Campaign (Politico.com) [Ukraine]
- May 26, 2019: How the Liberals beat Labor at its own game (SMH.com.au) [Australia]
- August 1, 2019: “Be Water!”: seven tactics that are winning Hong Kong’s democracy revolution (NewStatesman.com) [Hong Kong]
- October 30, 2019: Github removes Tsunami Democratic’s APK after a takedown order from Spain (TechCrunch.com) [Catalonia]
- November 3, 2019: Fears of election meddling on social media were overblown, say researchers (CBC.ca) [Canada]
- December 10, 2019: The Civic Stack: Hong Kong Protest Movement Tech (CivicHall.org) [Hong Kong]
- December 18, 2019: Creative, actually: ‘Digi Kiwis’ lift the lid on Boris Johnson’s video masterstroke (SMH.com.au) [UK]
Why It Matters
Political professionals in the U.S. don’t often take the time to learn from the tactics and strategies of campaigners in other countries.