In the introduction of Sasha Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab,” he talks with Democratic consultant Steve Rosenthal about how decisions are made on campaigns. Rosenthal was quoted as saying, “Most things are done with only one check.” He defined “one check” as nothing more than an individual’s “gut” instinct.
Gut instinct continues to be the primary form of decision making within Republican campaigns, some of which spend millions of dollars on inefficient media buys based on campaign methods passed down through decades of political lore.
The gap within Republican campaigns in some ways mirrors the larger Republican problem with younger voters and the millennial generation. Millennials interact with media in very different ways than their parents. Television watching has continually decreased among Americans 18-24 for the past seven consecutive quarters. A recent Reuters poll found that among voters 18-34, the Internet is their main news source. Additionally the web is the most trusted source of political information among all voters.
But what about the polls that campaigns, state parties, and Super PACs field in an effort to learn more about voters? Polls are of course helpful in plotting a course for a campaign, but poll questions concerning all things digital are asked using retro verbiage.
Often at the behest of hegemonic television consultants, pollsters will ask voters for source medium on candidate name identification. Sometimes the campaigns engaging in these polls had actually spent large amounts of money on television or direct mail, and little money online, ahead of fielding the poll. Yet the findings were twisted into justification for media allocations made proportionally to the poll results.
Political science has also undertaken some helpful research on source identification confusion (Y.M. Kim & J. Vishak, J.N. Druckman) and has expressed the problem of putting too much trust into voters’ memory concerning source identification of political information.
As Republicans, we often ally ourselves with business interests while, at the same time, we fail to run campaigns as a real business. Businesses spend resources, not according to their guts, but according to shifting consumer trends, brand lift studies, and, ultimately, the goals of the specific advertising campaign.
A 2013 study of spending habits of major Madison Avenue advertising firms noted “digital’s share of media buys processed by major agencies was 24.6%.”
The business world stands in stark contrast to the political one, where often campaigns spend somewhere between 2-10 percent of their buy online, most often on the extreme low side of the range. In many ways, the Republican Party is inversely spending online in contrast to undeniable research concerning rising digital usage.
For those critical of a comparison between the consumer and political worlds, there are some differences. In the political space, properly executed campaign data operations allow media buys to be individually tailored to registered voters based on numerous characteristics. Just last week, Twitter announced advertisers can deliver messages to individual users targeted either by email address or Twitter ID, which a database platform like NationBuilder collects.
Therefore, the buys are even more efficient for campaigns wanting to preserve precious resources. For example, the Dallas-Ft. Worth media market has 7.2 million people and 2.6 million households within it. There are more than 10 congressional districts representing areas within the DMA, all of which waste incredibly large percentages of their television buys on ads that otherwise could be specifically targeted to individuals within their districts.
Additionally, the ability to target individual districts is not only more efficient, but the nature of digital advertising allows voters to directly interact with content. This is not only useful in branding, but also in growing campaign and small-dollar donor lists.
There seems to be a pattern forming in the Republican Party, one in which party “elites” and an old guard of consultants placate business-minded donors with information regarding spending their money more efficiently, then go right back to spending money and allocating human resources the same way they always have.
The chatter after the 2012 election led to memos, op-eds, and endless panel discussions on how the party needed to change its communication structure. However, with the first round of Republican primaries in less than two months, it seems that the human gut is once again running Republican campaigns.
Vincent Harris is a Republican political consultant and CEO of Harris Media who has worked on numerous campaigns including heading up digital operations for Ted Cruz’s campaign in 2012. He has also worked with Governor Rick Scott, Governor Jan Brewer, and Senator Mitch McConnell. Vincent is a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas.