The 2017 election just gave us new lessons for communicating in today's rapidly changing media landscape. Virginia's hotly contested statewide elections also showed us the latest in campaign trends.
Here are five to watch:
1. The 2016 election was marked by President Trump's unconventional media methods and sophisticated digital advertising. The trend continued in Virginia's 2017 election.
Over $50 million was spent in Virginia's election. The majority of this campaign money was spent on TV ads, but digital and social media advertising grew their share of the spend. Both Democrats and Republicans placed early digital ads for their candidates.
These advanced digital ad programs would run daily with multiple ads targeted to narrow demographic groups. For instance, a targeted group of white, educated women would be sent a digital ad message about "keeping your health insurance." The campaign would watch if the group engaged, clicked or shared the ad. When the group stopped engaging, the campaign would then send a new ad with a similar message "keep your contraception coverage." By reading the data behind the ads, campaigns constantly improved their targeting process and message.
2. Video is increasingly getting more engagement than static digital ads and played a much larger role in this election. In the past, TV ads and social media would typically run separate but similar ad campaigns. The better campaigns now have integrated TV and social media together. As campaigns produced their customary 30-second TV ad, they would also produce shorter versions of the same ad for social media, and then launch them together.
3. Campaigns are finding a way to communicate to voters by texting without turning the voter off to the mild intrusion. Volunteers like texting, it's a lot easier than getting a voter on the phone at home. Campaigns ran texting programs that communicated directly with voters through well-trained volunteers. Because of the ease of texting, the reach of the program was extensive.
Many of the volunteer texters actually lived outside of Virginia. They could sit in their living rooms and inbound text to friendly Democratic voters with pre-written scripts about the candidate. Many volunteers still upset about Hillary Clinton's loss found this as an opportunity to get involved in a substantial way beyond donating and social media.
4. Campaign data collection increased dramatically, but campaign pollsters continue to have a hard time predicting Election Day turnout and voter intensity. The Real Clear Politics average of the many public polls was 3 ½ points for Democrat Ralph Northam to win for governor. He won by 9 points. The Quinnipiac Poll, which was considered an outlier to other polls, had it right at 9 points.
New types of data poured into campaigns from social media, online surveys and texting programs. This diverse set of data is increasingly evaluated by campaigns for insight, however, the data has also not solved the knowledge gap of who exactly will show up to vote. Pollsters and the campaign data people are still working to figure out a new model for measurement.
5. Recent Congressional hearings of major tech firms such as Facebook and Twitter have not slowed up fake news. If someone associated with a campaign wants to outsmart Twitter by setting up fake accounts and spreading false news through them, you don't need to be James Bond.
The volume of this misinformation and negativity is to a point where I'm not sure the tech firms can stop it without a massive overhaul. As this past Election Day approached, the amount of fake news in Virginia jumped. This clearly was not a coincidence, its being planned and planted. It is something that campaigns and technology have not figured out how to handle and it will take some time.
Stephen Jewett consulted in the 2017 Virginia election and is managing partner of Hartford-based McDowell Jewett Communications. He works on political campaigns throughout the country.