How social media will force 2020 Dems to sideline traditional campaigning

Elizabeth Warren made a big deal of drinking a beer while live-streaming. A Kamala Harris aide shared a video of her boss desk dancing to Cardi B. Cory Booker posts Instagrams of himself taking selfies.

As the 2020 Democratic presidential primary gets underway, the current and potential White House contenders are trying to connect with supporters online, convinced it’s an essential way to gain an advantage in what could be the biggest Democratic field ever.

These public, seemingly lighthearted moments reflect something going on behind the scenes, where strategists — racing to adjust to power of social media — are grappling with how to build a digital-first operation that can cultivate an online army. That could mean radical changes to the personnel and organization of the campaign itself — including a fundamental rethinking of traditional roles in areas such as communications and fundraising.

“I’ve been talking through that with a lot of people,” said Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Do you even have a digital department anymore? It’s complicated.”

“We don’t talk about having a telephone department,” he added. “We don’t talk about using telephones anymore. We need to get to the same place in digital where it’s just seamlessly part of everything we do.”

Doing things online is not new in 2020. Howard Dean tapped into online support in 2004, and Barack Obama augmented many of those techniques four years later. Donald Trump was wildly successful raising money online in 2016.

What’s different now is America’s digital culture. It has been a dozen years since the last multi-candidate, free-for-all Democratic primary, and in that time, social media has become the single greatest driver of messages, and it’s inhabited by many current Democrats who weren’t old enough to vote for Obama in 2008.

“I’ve had candidates, and nascent campaigns, and prospective campaign staff call and ask what we did over the last two years, and what I think they should be doing to integrate digital into their own campaigns,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA, whose groups has emphasized digital voter-outreach.

“In a close race, that could very well be the difference between the nominee and the runner-up,” he said.

Cecil and other Democrats expect an evolutionary leap forward in how campaigns conduct themselves this primary — even if it means upsetting traditional roles. Whereas campaigns, including Obama’s and Clinton’s, spent more than a decade siloing their digital operation away from other parts the campaign, candidates this cycle are likely to try and integrate them into all aspects of the campaign.

“You might see some campaigns name as their finance director somebody that comes from the email fundraising world, as opposed to someone who knows high-net-worth individuals who can write big checks,” said Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “Rather than have a social media manager that’s staffing your Twitter account or email manager that’s drafting most of the messages ... in a separate vertical, you might seem them in the communications [department].”

Traditional campaign staffers who work on communications focus their efforts on professional journalists and the broader media. But that will change as candidates develop their own platforms -- many of them with larger built-in audiences than many newspapers or TV channels.

“You have competition and fallout of the Mueller interview, renewed oversight from a Democratic majority in the House, the continued behavior of the Trump Administration, and how much that dominates news coverage,” Cecil said. “And you have 15 to 20 people running for president.”

“All of that can’t fit in a normal news cycle,” he added. “So you have to find other way to communicate directly to people.”

Fallon predicted a “hybrid model” for many of the campaigns, calling this cycle a transition period between the way things were done in the past — when digital was walled off from the rest of the campaign — and the way it will be done in the future, when digital operations are fully integrated.

That fluidity gives campaigns a chance to innovate, Fallon and other strategists say, but also comes with an uncertainty because no one knows exactly what the right model looks like.

“There is definitely an acknowledgment that this is important,” said Tara McGowan, a Democratic digital strategist. “But no one knows how to do it.”

Strategists like McGowan, however, caution that even the most sophisticated operation won’t drive support and dollars to a campaign if the candidate isn’t compelling on his or her own, whether through force of personality or the appeal of their ideas. Bernie Sanders ran a top-notch operation in 2016, but his online donation windfall was a consequence mostly of the attraction people felt to his candidacy.

“You can’t just throw technology at something and get success,” said a senior adviser to Sanders. “The tech is used to capture and to make productive a grassroots energy, but if your candidate doesn’t have that grassroots energy, all the tools in the world aren’t going to help.

“The digital campaign and these tools do not create a movement themselves, they facilitate one.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.