Over the past few weeks, I’ve been struck several times by the growing sophistication of down-ballot campaigns when it comes to online campaigning. I recently got a demo from NGP VAN of their tools for managing email and online fundraising for congressional, state legislative and other candidates. As we went along, I kept hearing that their clients were demanding advanced options that used to be the preserve of presidential and other national-level campaigns.

For instance, NGP VAN tools now have built-in options for A/B/C, etc. testing of emails, allowing campaigns to try subject lines and other variables on sub-sets of their main email lists, and then easily pick the “winning” version and send it to the rest of their supporters.

Another requested feature: the ability for campaigns to customize their data model to match their needs, particularly for fundraising-related data mining. The takeaway: Down-ballot campaigners are really using data, and they want advanced options for tracking and using information about voters, supporters and donors.

Another example: the recent race for an at-large city council seat in the District of Columbia, which saw a candidate using geo-targeted Google content ads to send potential voters to his NationBuilder site. That site then recruited them to follow the campaign via email and social media channels.

Another candidate in the same race (a low-turnout special election to fill a vacant seat) employed voter data to identify and contact the people he hoped would lead him to victory. Both were defeated by a candidate who in part credited geo-targeted robocalls (with different surrogates depending on the neighborhood) for her victory. Note that the data-mining D.C. candidate was a Republican, a sign that these developments are cross-party.

And check out the recent National Journal coverage of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempts to create an Obama-style data-driven campaign—a model he hopes to export to other Republicans.

Finally, and this is more subjective, at April’s CampaignTech conference, the overall level of conversation in the halls felt higher than at most online politics conferences I’ve been to—and I’ve been going to conferences covering online politics since 1997. It’s a fascinating process to watch: Digital politics used to be perceived as a game for the big campaigns, but not any longer. Campaigns at all levels are becoming aware of the tools and are putting them to work.

Blue State Digital vs. the world

While I was heading to that tech overview at NGP VAN, I actually stumbled onto another great example of the competitiveness of the contemporary campaign technology world. As per usual, I couldn’t remember the company’s address, so I Googled it on the way. Lo and behold, a Blue State Digital search ad popped up, with this text:

Blue State Digital - BlueStateDigital.com
www.bluestatedigital.com/Tools
Is NGP VAN Not a Good Fit For Your Organization? Try BSD Tools!

A search for “Salsa Labs” didn’t turn up anything similar, but one for “Salsa Labs pricing” did, which gives even more insight into BSD’s targeting strategy. Their goal, of course, is to capture the attention of people researching their rivals. The mobile angle is particularly fun, since someone’s likely to be looking up the targeted company online when they’re heading to a meeting there, just as I was. It’s a great way to filter for prospective clients.

Of course, running Google ads on searches for your opponent is nothing new in business, or in politics. It’s a great tool for down-ballot campaigns, since targeted search ads can catch voters, journalists, bloggers and other influentials when they’re actively looking for information about the race. Lesser-known challengers in particular would seem to benefit, since they can leverage their opponent’s name recognition to promote their own messaging.

Facebook: More important down-ballot?

Continuing the down-ballot emphasis, Facebook’s Katie Harbath made a great point in a CampaignTech panel—Facebook is likely to be a more important tool for local candidates than it is for people running, say, for president. The logic’s obvious when you think about it: Facebook organizing is free as long as you’re not running ads or paying to promote content, making it perfect for candidates with more enthusiasm than cash. And a candidate’s Facebook page can serve as a public rallying point for supporters, which is particularly important for races that may be won by a relative handful of votes.

At the presidential level—or even statewide—campaigns will have access to a ton of online options, from email to advertising to custom social networks. While they almost certainly will use Facebook, it’s likely to be just one arrow in the quiver: a big campaign basically needs to cover all the bases.

Someone running (or advocating) locally, though, will need to focus time on a smaller number of tools and strategies that are likely to yield fast results. In the process, they’ll go where the voters are, and plenty of voters spend a lot of time on Facebook.

Launching a Consulting Practice

Enough talk about digital politics—let's actually do some of it. In that spirit, your TechBytes author has launched a new consulting practice, aiming to use my 15-plus years of experience in the field to help electoral and advocacy campaigns leverage the power of online and digital tools to achieve their goals. I'm focusing on strategic planning and implementation, with a particular emphasis on how to integrate the myriad options now available both with each other and with activity in the real world—where it really matters. For more, check out Epolitics.com, which will serve as the new consultancy's hub while still providing the regular stream of digital politics coverage that readers have enjoyed since 2006.

Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, and a 15-year veteran of online politics. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at cpd@epolitics.com