OPINION: The 2020 election was a wake-up call. Democrats must embrace digital strategies

A red background with a spiral of birds the shape and blue color of the Twitter logo.
(Yasmín Elqutami • The Student Life)

Across the country this November, projected sweeping Democratic wins were not delivered. Democrats failed to achieve a House supermajority or a Senate majority, not only failing to flip the Senate but even losing blue seats to the GOP.

If Democrats lose the Georgia Senate runoffs this January, President-elect Biden will begin his presidency with a divided government. With Senator Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader, Democrats could face major challenges to passing significant Democratic legislation.

It is evident from the 2020 election results that Democrats need to reevaluate their campaign strategies and implement digital strategies rooted in social media grassroots organizing. 

While Republicans have embraced digital strategies in recent elections — including misleading Facebook advertisements, misinformation from Breitbart articles and President Trump’s controversial Twitter usage — many Democrats have been hesitant to emulate this approach to campaigning. Michelle Obama’s famous slogan at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “When they go low, we go high,” is quite symbolic of this sentiment. 

Yet, the fact of the matter is that there is a way for Democrats to employ effective digital strategies with integrity. And, without these strategies, Democrats will continue to lose future elections and risk losing the faith of their constituents not only in the Party, but in electoral politics as a whole. 

This semester, I worked an internship at Flip the West, a super-PAC using grassroots electoral methods in its attempt to flip six Senate seats. As the virtual events coordinator, I worked on campaigns in Iowa, Kansas, Alaska, Colorado, Arizona and Montana through organizing virtual phone-banking efforts. Two of the candidates we supported, Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper, saw successes while the others unfortunately did not. 

It was clear to me the distinction: employment of digital strategies. While candidates like Theresa Greenfield and Barbara Bollier significantly outraised and outspent their opponents, they failed to cultivate a strong social media presence across various platforms. Both have fewer than 10,000 Instagram followers and under 21,000 likes on their Facebook pages

Across the nation, Democratic candidates like Nithya Raman who effectively used a range of media platforms saw significant wins. Those who stuck to only conventional media outlets like television and news broadcasting suffered huge losses this election cycle, despite raising record-high donation figures.

Candidates like senators-elect Mark Kelly of Arizona and John Hickenlooper of Colorado scored wins and are prominent case studies. Both candidates partnered with Amplify.ai, a digital strategy company that uses Facebook Messenger chatbots to connect with users about campaigns. 

Besides YouTube, Kelly also distributed his video advertisements on his extremely active Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages. Kelly’s team went so far as to launch a Snapchat lens, making them the first Senate campaign to do so. His campaign also launched two Instagram filters, as well as videos and text explainers in both Spanish and English. 

Hickenlooper has similarly cultivated consistent high engagement on his social media pages — his Facebook page has nearly 68,000 likes to once-opponent Senator Cory Gardner’s 35,000.

The Democratic Party establishment has developed a bad habit of dismissing social media engagement as secondary, disregarding the fact that app users are also constituents. Much of the rhetoric by Democrats about President Trump’s consistent and controversial Twitter presence infantilizes his strategy, failing to recognize it is an extremely effective method that garners high levels of engagement and coverage

In April 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi indirectly addressed Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying, “While there are people who have a large number of Twitter followers, what’s important is that we have large numbers of votes on the floor of the House.” Pelosi’s statement failed to recognize the importance of online civic engagement between representatives and their constituents, which is particularly relevant with younger voters. 

A first-term congresswoman, Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most followed politicians on Twitter and the most followed member of the House by a large margin. In October, Ocasio-Cortez hosted the largest GOTV rally of 2020 by highlighting the importance of voting blue while playing Among Us on a Twitch stream with Rep. Ilhan Omar and popular Twitch users Myth, HasanAbi and pokimane. The stream had about 435,000 live viewers and nearly 5 million total views by the next day, making it one of the top 20 most viewed streams in Twitch history

On Nov. 28, Ocasio-Cortez hosted a second Among Us stream on Twitch with Canadian New Democratic Party leader and MP Jagmeet Singh and top Twitch streamers, during which she raised $200,000 in donations toward pandemic relief efforts. 

The size of the young voter outreach Ocasio-Cortez accomplished twice typically costs Democrats hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting services. Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated the way forward: reaching out to young voters via platforms that they use and even collaborating with leading figures on those platforms. 

Rather than pay hefty fees and put money only towards traditional campaigning efforts, Democrats need to hire and pay social media interns who can do research on political discourse among constituents online and put forward engaging and relevant content. They need to spend money on social media advertising efforts like Instagram and Snapchat filters, Facebook promotions to boost engagement and chatbots that directly reach out to constituents in the effort to promote a candidate’s campaign and platform. 

When candidates post livestreams and informal videos, they show parts of their lives that are humanizing and accessible, so discussing policy in these spaces makes politics more relatable and accessible, in turn. This is significant when civics are not usually made accessible to younger folks, as younger voters are more likely to face voting barriers and tend to be less trusting of government institutions than their older counterparts. 

Political campaigns have long struggled to reach younger voters and consequently often omit the demographic. Yet, around 73 percent of Twitch users are under the age of 35, a fact Ocasio-Cortez has effectively capitalized on in an effort to reach these potential voters with campaign messaging. The Kelly campaign’s Snapchat efforts employ the same strategy — there are an estimated one million registered Arizona voters between the ages of 18 and 30 who use Snapchat, and of the total 850,000 voters who were registered via Snapchat as of late September, the majority were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Other candidates such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Jamaal Bowman also tapped into the power of diverse media outreach. They frequently answer political questions on Instagram livestreams, Instagram stories and Twitter.

Another such candidate is Andrew Yang, who ran for president in the Democratic primaries. A political outsider, Yang built an enormous and highly engaged social media presence with followers who named themselves the Yang Gang and flooded social media with supportive memes, posts and threads.

To win future elections, Democrats must include digital strategies in campaigns. Raising and spending record-high fundraising totals does not ensure electoral wins unless the money is spent effectively. Wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on expensive races only discourages voters from donating to Democratic campaigns and causes distrust in electoral politics.

This election has made it clear that the future of campaigning is digital. Democrats would do well to listen.

Agnes Mok PO ’21 is a guest writer majoring in philosophy, politics and economics. She speaks four languages and is an aspiring kitten owner. According to Spotify Wrapped, she spent 3,257 minutes streaming Taylor Swift in 2020.

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