Why Voter Reach Is More Critical Than Enthusiasm in Winning Elections

What Brexit Can Teach the Presidential Candidates About Personalization

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The morning after the Brexit vote, a spike in UK Google searches suggested many British voters didn't know much about the European Union or the consequences of the vote to leave it. In the parlance of political operatives, it was a "low information voter" problem. But the Brexit vote may serve as a prologue to electorate behavior in the U.S. given the remarkable parallels between the hurly burly populism of that vote, and the raw discontent on display by American voters.

Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in Annandale, Va.
Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in Annandale, Va. Credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

In a normal presidential election year, it's a given that political parties will be "all in," competing for voter enthusiasm that normally translates into media coverage, donor dollars and eventually votes. This time around, however, enthusiasm is especially volatile -- even unhinged at times -- and ironically may be ultimately irrelevant.

Some call this the Twitter election. One candidate broadcasts 140 characters about something that's wildly untrue, perhaps even dangerous, and his or her opponent replies with snark. Candidates craft hyperbolic memes designed to trend, and the content of what's trending isn't just popular, it's treated as both fact and the straw-man headline of the day across multiple media channels.

Even by the relatively low standards of politics, the tone of this election has, at best, been juvenile. How might a campaign navigate these unruly, policy-free waters to get its message out? The answer tracks with one of the dominant themes shaping marketing today -- personalization. The race to personalize the electorate will tell us a lot about the immediate future of marketing.

Among political journalists, we've seen a running critique of Donald Trump: He flip-flops wildly, but doesn't pay a price. Interpreting this phenomenon shows that Trump voters have, in effect, self-personalized his messaging. Voters don't believe his wildest promises -- and they don't care.

To Trump voters, the Donald's digital persona mirrors the echo chamber of their discontent. Reactive and random, Trump's digital strategy is still missing in action, save for a late-night tweet about being treated fairly by the press. His digital infrastructure has been slow to develop, if not error prone, and strategy-challenged given the current state of the art in digital politics. He and the campaign seem perfectly content with personalization by punchline -- letting the voters opt-in to the themes that ring their bell, rather than doing what even the down-ballot candidates realize -- the necessity to leverage digital to communicate with select voter groups about key policy initiatives, and encourage them to vote.

In 2008, Obama beat Clinton, in part because the Obama campaign committed to digital and an innovative social and email strategy. But this time around, in spite of a more robust digital campaign from Bernie Sanders, who took online fundraising to entirely new levels, Clinton still won.

To be blunt, the Clinton digital campaign strategy has lacked momentum. To her advantage though, she has some of the Obama digital brain trust on staff, so when it comes to digital strategy and infrastructure, the talent, if not the enthusiasm, is in place. It may not matter as much in this election, as Clinton has a large fundraising lead and has already reserved swing-state television buys. We should expect her campaign to dominate expensive TV buys from now through the fall, while systematically adjusting focus, including proven digital segmentation strategies from 2008 and 2012 that address key constituencies in order to raise funds and excite voters.

The real competitive contests may be found in down-ticket races. Results probably won't swing with the enthusiasm from the top of the ticket, because both presidential candidates are setting records for antipathy. Both candidates are polling negatively, at over 60%. Winning a congressional district or a governor's race will be an exercise in digital data and reach. Campaigns that were run ten years ago by direct mail, phone banks and lawn signs may be decided by IP address and mobile device targeting.

Think of this election as direct mail online. With over 80% of the voter population online, hyper-local targeting your district by the issues and by voter profiles is key. Using the digital targeting tools available to reach all of your voter segments repeatedly creates interest in the issues and sustains a robust voter impetus. Anything less -- like fractional advertising reach of local cable television buys -- won't be cost effective or move the needle because the audience coverage on any given show simply isn't there.

As citizens, we'll be watching the reality TV show at the top of the ticket. But the takeaway for 2016 may well be the thousands of case studies that unfold as digital reach and personalization impact the down-ballot races.

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