This election season has been crazy. Not in recent memory have significant factions of both parties openly question the nominee, attempt to disrupt the unity at each convention, and threaten to vote for the other party’s candidate.
“The election has been so fascinating and different,” said Jordan Cohen, CMO of Fluent, a marketing agency who has been tracking conversations around the election at Fluent Political Pulse.
“This is a nontraditional election the likes of which we haven’t seen in recent history,” said Michael Palmer, president of Republican data firm i360 and the national eCampaign director and CTO of the John McCain 2008 Presidential campaign,. “Does it continue to play out like that? I don’t know – but all signs point to yes.”
And for those who have been tracking the election since Martin O’Malley and Bobby Jindal were still running, it seems like this campaign will never end. But you would be in the minority.
“This is when America starts paying attention. In the Beltway, this is all-year-round, but for normal people, they start paying attention now,” said a Republican operative who requested anonymity so as to speak candidly.
With less than 100 days and counting until we elect the next President of the United States, we asked data analysts and strategists – both neutral and partisan – what the campaigns need to accomplish with data and marketing to get to the finish line successfully.
The Republican operative described a traditional campaign as thus: you announce you are running for President and then build up both a staff and database infrastructure. Provided you win the nomination and get through the party convention, you then have three months until the general election. Those three months are all about strengthening and growing the database, messaging to it to convert undecideds, and then get out the vote (GOTV). It all starts with developing your audience. And in modern history, the biggest place to do so is cultivating your email lists.
“The priorities have always been to build a vast first-party database so you can communicate one-to-one, primarily over email,” Cohen said. “The most important thing campaigns can do is get valid emails onto the list and onto the database so they can communicate on a high-frequency and low-cost basis.”
And while that is still the most important element of any modern campaign, it’s impossible to talk about this election without discussing Twitter.
“Trump is a mastermind at PR on Twitter and in getting in front of media,” Cohen said, pointing to the well-documented claim that Trump has earned billions in earned media. “The crazier he Tweets, the more reporters are covering him.”
While Twitter will continue to be a major dissemination vehicle for Trump, he’s started to improve his email operations, which were undeveloped for a long time.
As we discussed in a recent article, Clinton has a significant advantage on Trump in both fundraising and list building, both likely because the former candidate did not prioritize either until now.
“They had a very skinny operation in the primaries and they’re trying to expand very quickly,” the operative said. “The one commodity that cannot be replaced here is time.”
Trump’s other main issue – besides a smaller database – is that he has recently been plagued with spam issues.
How does one get onto a spam list? Two easy ways are to send emails that look like spam, send emails to a list under a different domain, or send them to people who did not sign up to receive your emails.
Trump may have had issues with all three.
The first fundraising email sent in June, according to Return Path, had a 60% spam rate, likely due to the fact that he switched sender domains. The emails have also had the same sort of hubris and promises of the Trump campaign that can read like spam as email.
The Trump campaign also apparently emailed unsolicited fundraising emails to liberal members of the Scottish parliament. While a Fusion piece points out that someone could easily sign up these members for the purpose of agitation, it could also be that Trump’s campaign has added people en-masse.
Sending emails to people who have not registered to receive has to be widespread in order to land in spam quarantine, said Mike Conlow, technical director at Blue State Digital and former deputy CTO of the Obama campaign said.
“You [shouldn’t] get emails from campaigns if you haven’t said you want to get emails,” Conlow said. “We work very hard to keep Democratic campaigns out of spam boxes; reputable technology providers won’t let campaigns add names to their list that shouldn’t be there.”
The campaigns spend a lot of time and money to build up these databases, which mostly comprise of their “base,” which you can count on to disseminate your message and to give donations. The base usually votes the party line regardless of which candidate is selected.
“In a Presidential year election – though this is an odd one for sure – the turnout of your base is less an issue than targeting those on undecideds,” said the operative.
In a world of #nevertrump and #neverhillary, the base is no longer a sure thing.
“This election is very unique in that you have polarizing candidates and dissention on both sides,” Cohen said. “Not so simple for the Trump campaign to say who voted for Romney four years ago and say, ‘Let’s target them’.”
But Palmer said there’s some weakening of that friction.
“Over the course of the last few months, we have seen the reluctance of people on both sides dissipate,” Palmer said. “The bases have come home a bit, but it’s still not what we would see in a given year. A low turn out of the bases is still a possibility.”
Palmer said that the question both campaigns need to explore and prepare for: “If 10%-20% of the base acts differently than it normally would?”
Base issues aside, the most important people on that database – and indeed to target – are undecided likely voters. The traditional approach, Conlow said, is persuading people on the fence but highly likely to vote.
“The general principle for how it works from very early in the campaign up until the end is to find people who are not yet committed to you but are very likely to vote,” said Conlow.
Campaigns do want – and need – to aggressively court undecided. So who do they look for?
“Whether or not you voted – but not whom you voted for – is public record,” Conlow said. “The most powerful [indicator] if you’re going to vote is whether you have voted in the past general elections.”
According to the media, Trump has flipped this script – attracting and courting people a mix of left- and right-leaning people who are and have been disillusioned by the process and who have never participated in a previous election. This would be – to put it mildly – an unprecedented strategy.
“It appears that Trump’s… campaign is much more focused on people who haven’t felt represented by the political process or less traditional voters. That’s a risky strategy,” Conlow said.
“If someone’s counting their strategy on turning out those voters who have not voted before, that’s a not traditionally a sound strategy, the operative said.
However, Palmer said his firm did not find any evidence to support the narrative that Trump was turning out independents, Democrats, and first-time voters more than normal.
The reason why Trump achieved a record number of primary voters was due to states not used to their primaries mattering actually having impact this year.
“Texas has never been a decider [of Republican] elections,” Palmer said. “When we looked at the voter roles, it wasn’t people who normally don’t vote – it was Republican general election voters who now had a primary election to vote in.”
Outside of the few undecided obsessed with due diligence that sign up for every campaign’s email operations, how does a campaign identify the likely voters more likely to vote for their candidate and get them into their fold?
“Find those people with parallel interests who are not yet supporting you,” said James Rubec, Cision Canada content marketing manager.
Rubec said that the Clinton campaign should identify Hillary supporters and map their common interests. Then they’re to back into people who share the same interests – say Demi Lovato or Katy Perry – but haven’t expressed a preference on candidate and work to win them over.
He added that while Trump had more social media mentions than Clinton, the DNC had more aggregate mentions than the RNC because of the star power of the DNC speakers, even though the RNC had Scott Baio.
And what should the campaigns do the databases of people? Well, market to them through those segments.
“For Trump, I’d want to know what messages are working better where. Where is the ‘build the wall’ message the strongest or the Hillary email messaging, and purchase ads around these topics in those areas,” said
“Trump will be more successful if he stops creating multiple day distractions,” Rubec said. “Trump is at his best when he’s on attack.”
Rubec said Cision data found that immigration and Hillary’s email scandal – two strong messages for Trump – each accounted for 6% share of conversation through the RNC convention, far less then the Trump campaign would have liked.
And for Clinton, Rubec said she should talk about a strong economy.
“People are discussing the economy in a favorable way when discussing the DNC,” Rubec said. “They’re discussing the economy less in tandem with the RNC.”
To summarize, the base should be fine, it’s business as usual. Find the undecideds, sway them and ensure they go out to vote in November.
“Find your persuasion targets and, when GOTV comes around, you’ve built up this list of people who are supporters,” Conlow said.
But, again, it is a weird election season.
“You have two candidates that have the highest disapproval rating [in history] running for the highest office,” the operative said. “The past isn’t necessarily the guide here.”