Democrats won the first round of Wisconsin’s recall elections yesterday, in part with the help of digital tools. But while Democratic backers appeared to be more sophisticated in their use of the web for grassroots fundraising and organizing, they – along with their opponents on the right – largely ignored online advertising and other paid digital efforts.
Two national progressive organizations, Democracy for America (DFA) and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), have worked hand-in-hand to drive their supporters around the country to donate to the cause and volunteer to help get out the vote. The groups sent their supporters fundraising and volunteer requests via email, for instance.
Emails sent to 25,000 Wisconsin DFA members drove 2,600 volunteers, according to Levana Layendecker, communications director for DFA. “It shows the level of engagement of DFA members in general and how people are really motivated,” she said, suggesting that many of those initial email recipients passed along the messages to other likely supporters.
The two groups operated a “Call Out The Vote” effort, facilitating phone calls to Wisconsin voters from volunteers across the country. Several supporters using the digital phone banking system yesterday tweeted, “I’m volunteering to Call Out The Vote to help defeat Wisconsin Republicans!” The Twitter posts linked to the phone system sign up page and used hashtag #WI.
The approach helped galvanize national support, as well as donations; the two groups collected more than $1.5 million online. Meanwhile, groups on the right including Wisconsin Family Council used their Facebook pages to bemoan the fact that out-of-state dollars were flowing into the Wisconsin recall battleground.
Tuesday’s recall election was a primary, the first of a handful of recall elections set to take place in the state this summer. They’re the result of an earlier effort encouraging state voters to sign petitions to recall state lawmakers – Democrats and Republicans – who were involved in a prolonged showdown over public union benefits and collective bargaining rights. Republican governor Scott Walker became a flashpoint, propped up by conservatives and demonized by the left. In the end Walker signed legislation depleting collective bargaining rights and raising the amounts public union workers must pay into their benefit plans.
Not surprising, the fight solidified support from other unions, too, some of which has carried through to the recall elections. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on its Facebook and Twitter pages yesterday praised NY firefighter Patrick Bahnken for volunteering to get voters to the polls in Wisconsin.
According to reports, turnout was weak, as expected for a special primary election in the middle of the summer. All six Democrats won the primary.
“These elections are generally pretty low turnout elections, so one of our goals is to bump that up as much as we can,” said Layendecker. She anticipates momentum to build around the calling and door-to-door canvassing operation in coming weeks leading to the general elections. The call-out-the-vote system allows callers to submit information about voters into a database that informs whether those people should be contacted later in-person by canvassers.
Right wing groups with stakes in the elections including American Patriot Recall Coalition, Club for Growth Wisconsin, and GOPAC Wisconsin, gave little indication of online activity around yesterday’s vote, despite the fact that Rebublicans ran their own candidates as “fake” Democrats in the race. The Republican State Leadership Committee placed a TV ad on YouTube asking supporters to donate to keep the ad running on television.
On the left, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s Wisconsin PAC used the same approach. DFA and the PCCC also took the online-fundraising-to-fund-TV-ads tactic. “Donate $3 to keep this powerful new TV ad on the air in Wisconsin,” read a plea on the PCCC site.
“It’s unfortunate that some operatives on our side see the Internet as a direct way into voters’ pocketbooks. They see it as an ATM, then ignore the Internet as a channel for communicating a political message,” said Chris Talbot, president of Talbot Digital, a digital consulting firm working with Democratic candidates and organizations.
In all, DFA said it planned to spend $500,000 on advertising related to the recalls. But at least for the initial leg of the ongoing GOTV and persuasion effort, the groups spent nothing on digital ads. Going forward, said Layendecker, “spending online will depend on our fundraising. We’d like to do TV, radio, and online…. We’re pretty confident we’ll be able to do that, but we’re going to work on TV first.”
Layendecker said the focus on TV ad spending also rose from the desire to reach people outside the DFA membership base. “I would say that in this particular fight, we wanted to make sure our message was getting out to the audience of people in Wisconsin who were affected by this.”
Colin Delany, chief editor of Epolitics.com, and a digital consultant who works with left-leaning groups, said, “I definitely applaud their viral attempts.” Still, he suggested that plucking a small percentage of money from the TV ad budget to buy Facebook or Google ads could have brought in even better results. He noted the diminishing returns of TV ads, and told ClickZ News, “When you’re pouring money into TV and the airwaves are getting crowded, putting some of that money online may get you much better results.”
Simple search ads, for example, can lead people to a site to learn more about candidates or get them to the right polling place on voting day.
“Consider the reinforcing effect of people seeing ads on TV and in places like Facebook,” added Delany. “Particularly if the other side isn’t active online, then you have that whole arena to yourself.”
Added Talbot, “The background for a lot of political folks is in field operations and organizing – and they’re finding incredible, innovative ways for the digital world to enhance those efforts. The problem is that this background doesn’t offer a whole lot of training in ad strategy or media planning. Just look at the trends, how the Internet is now a top source of news for most American voters, how it surpassed print as the second largest advertising market. People who work in media would spot these things and adjust, but too many political groups are still running a playbook that’s a decade behind.
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