Recent primary victories by underfunded Democratic candidates have prompted a renewed push within the party for it to finally quit its addiction to television advertising in favor of digital.
But not everyone is on board, raising the specter of bitter internal fights over strategic vision in the critical months before the midterm elections and into the 2020 presidential contest.
“There are a lot of people in the progressive community who have turned against TV advertising because they view it as the primary driver for big-moneyed politics,” said Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign manager. “I think that’s a mistake. You are conceding a huge amount of turf to the Republican Party.”
For years, the Democratic Party has grappled with the changing media landscape and how best to allocate its resources in response to it. But what was largely a tense but civil debate has become something more acrimonious after Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 exposed what many saw as a painfully large digital advantage for Republicans. In the wake of that loss, some notable party luminaries have called for a dramatic reallocation of resources.
“Digital is not the future, it is the present and that’s a major problem for us,” said Howard Dean, the former DNC chair whose 2004 campaign pioneered using the internet to raise large sums through small donations. “It is a major problem because Republicans are still kicking our ass.”
Despite these fears, however, the debate remains unsettled, in part because top officials are uncertain about what lessons can be drawn from recent contests and whether they can be applied to future ones.
Dean’s theory of the case appears bolstered by primaries in New York, Massachusetts and Florida, where underdog candidates managed to win races with comparatively little money spent on television ads. Instead, those candidates relied on strong volunteer networks, compelling biographies and a mastery of the new digital landscape—from low-budget viral videos to Facebook Live and social media targeting—to reach voters outside of their television sets.
The first, and perhaps most notable example was the late June win by 28-year-old first time candidate and former bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez whose defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley, a political institution in Queens, came despite the fact that her campaign’s only actual ad was a biographical video released online in late May from a production company formed by two Detroit members of the Democratic Socialists of America. The spot cost less than $10,000. But it garnered over 300,000 views within a single day and managed to define Ocasio-Cortez for the district’s changing demography of younger, more diverse voters.
Just two months later, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won a crowded Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida without ever leading in the polls prior to election day. Outpaced in the money race, the campaign’s strategy was to get him in front of as many voters as possible and spread his name via digital and social media, including Facebook Live videos. Their TV spending, around $1.5 million total, paled in comparison to competitors like former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine who spent over $26 million in part on a late-stage negative ad campaign against billionaire Jeff Greene, who was also blanketing the airwaves.
Shortly after Gillum’s win, Ayanna Pressley, a city councilor in Boston, ousted 20-year-incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA), in an election that massively expanded turnout in Massachusetts’ 7th District. The campaign’s only television investment was a modest buy on Univision and Telemundo. The 30-second version of the spot ran in late August and early September for a total cost of around $17,000. The 60-second cut was put on Facebook.
“I think 2018 is rewriting a lot of our assumptions about campaigns,” Pressley’s campaign manager, Sarah Groh, told The Daily Beast. “We knew we would be out-fundraised and we knew we would be outspent but we believed so fiercely from the beginning was the way to win was to go directly to the people. That really became kind of the north star for this campaign.”
For digital evangelists, these data points have been nothing short of affirmational.
“When you look at how particularly younger people are even consuming TV, they consume it on digital. So anyone who thinks they can spend 10 percent on digital and the rest on broadcast TV is just missing massive swaths of the population,” said Cheryl Contee, the CEO and founder of the new digital agency Do Big Things. “If TV were such a winner why didn’t the Russians use that to sabotage our elections?... They could have astroturfed the shit out of TV but they didn’t do that because it was a lot easier for them, faster, and more efficient and more powerful to engage in the techniques they did using digital.”
But while these victories do lend credence to the idea of television’s diminished influence, other Democrats—including even some those on the recent triumphant digital campaigns—cautioned that no two races or candidates were the same.
Florida Democrats noted that Gillum did, in fact, benefit from TV ads–the ads that were run by his opponents against his other opponents and not him. And Kevin Cate, an adviser for Gillum, noted that his boss had the ability to connect with a younger, more diverse voter set through live-streaming, which made TV less of a necessity.
“This has been a long time coming for most people to recognize how much more genuine communication on social media can be than a television ad,” Cate said.
Corbin Trent, a co-founder of the Justice Democrats that endorsed and worked on Ocasio-Cortez’s behalf told The Daily Beast that they had to forgo TV as a medium in part because the market was too expensive.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “I think we’re still in the infancy of convincing candidates that this is the way to go. It’s easier to do with people that raise $800,000 or $80,000… because they don’t have any choice.”
A Pew Research Center survey published on Monday found that 68 percent of American adults say they get news from social media at least occasionally. And a Pew survey from January found that only 50 percent of American adults get news regularly from television, and only 28 percent from cable news.
But according to campaign operatives, the vast majority of funds continues to be spent on television advertising. One top digital strategist said that conservatives are roughly spending around 40 percent of their media budgets on digital while progressives spend around 10 percent. Another placed the figure for Democrats at around 20 percent.
Closing that gap was part of the motivation for the party’s main super PAC, Priorities USA, when it decided to forgo running television advertisements during the 2018 cycle.
Instead, the group has devoted $50 million of its $75 million operating budget to a digital ad portfolio. In all, it has trained 600 operatives on digital strategy and hired a team of roughly 60 individuals to create everything from online ads, videos, graphics, gifs and banner ads and to oversee media purchasing strategy. Their operation has expanded so fast that they had to open up a second office in Washington D.C.
“Campaigns still need to be putting a bigger percentage of their budget online,” said Josh Schwerin, a top spokesperson for the group. “The reason they don’t yet is it feels risky and new. And it is also because digital spending is more opaque. It is harder to know what you’re up against whereas with TV, you see every week the expenditures being spent and you’re like, ‘Oh we’ve got to match that.’”
But Schwerin also cautioned that digital is not a panacea. For every candidate whose campaign has taken off on the back of a viral video, there are 99 others whose campaigns remained stagnant. The audience watching television may be older and growing smaller. But those same people are the ones most reliably to vote. And even if the Republican Party has made great leaps on the digital front—through persuasion ads, list building, and fundraising—they have deeper pockets and are still pouring money into TV too.
“Digital has a growing part which our budget accounts for but I think it is fair to say TV and radio are still king,” said Chris Pack, communications director for a host of GOP super PACs and outside groups. He added, tongue in cheek: “We encourage all Democrats to stop spending money on TV.”