This was a cycle that raised important questions for consultants instead of providing answers on the direction of the industry.
It was supposed to be a cycle driven at the top by sophisticated modeling and analytics, but in the end reinforced the view of some media consultants that broadcast television is still king of the marketing kingdom. The debate over digital tactics, tools, strategy and the future of campaign consulting in the age of Donald Trump will be raging for months to come. But here are some of the questions that linger after 2016.
How unpolished can candidates be?
Trump is the epitome of the shoot-from-the-hip candidate and while many consultants found his rhetoric distasteful and even unethical, his unpolished style could become more widely adopted next cycle. Media consultants are already prepping for the new normal. “We see it in focus groups: people want less slickly produced spots,” John Rowley, a Democratic media consultant, recently told C&E.
But it’s not just at the federal level where consultants could be working with new candidate personality types. Take the mayor’s race in Richmond, Virginia this cycle. In another year, Joe Morrissey, who spent time in prison for dating his now wife when she was 17, wouldn’t have been a contender.
But running as an independent, he gave his Democratic and Republican rivals a run for their money. It’s also worth noting that Morrissey was reelected to his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2015 while serving a six-month sentence related his relationship with Myrna Pride. Clearly, the standards some voters have for what’s acceptable from a politician are being adjusted.
Does digital regain its luster?
The spending on digital in 2016 was vastly overestimated, with critics of Borrell Associates saying that their $1 billion-plus in spending prediction was off by as much as $300 million. “The reality is it’s probably like $800-$900 million,” Jordan Lieberman, politics and public affairs lead at Audience Partners, recently told C&E.
As a result, digital shops – especially non-political firms who staffed up specifically for the campaign cycle – should expect to see layoffs, said Lieberman. “A lot of people are losing their jobs.”
Now, digital consultants, particularly those on the left, are making the case for more spending online. In a recent opinion piece, Revolution Messaging’s Scott Goodstein argued that the Clinton campaign relied too heavily on outdated voter engagement methods that are ineffective for millennials. … We must retire the party's dinosaurs who still can't see it and do a much better job engaging millennials.”
But old school consultants note that, in fact, it’s seniors who are the underestimated sleeping giant of the American electorate — especially during midterm elections.
They typically vote in the 70 percentile, and those 55 and older represented no less than 45 percent of the total votes cast this year, according to one estimate. The number balloons to 65 percent if you factor in those 45 plus. Moreover, many seniors don’t own smartphones and are only reachable through mail and broadcast TV advertising – or by canvassing.
To wit, it should also be noted that even Millennials aren’t too fond of viewing online advertising. That ad fatigue combined with bots and fraud traffic could make for a harder sell. How consultants resolve this tension will be instructive to watch in the New Year and beyond.
What happens to Trump’s vendors?
There was talk of blacklisting Trump staffers and consultants before the 2016 vote happened, but that faded after his upset victory over Hillary Clinton. In fact, his former staffers are now hanging shingles, with Corey Lewandowski, his fired campaign manager, the first out of the gate in December.
While consultants have long maintained that there can be only one Trump, Lewandowski said he plans to work with primary challengers, “something I might have a core competency on,” he told the Washington Post. Whether the Trump campaign will become a model for the industry is a big question going into 2017.
Now, on the left there has already been some repercussions for those who worked with Trump’s campaign. RootsCamp 2016 dropped NationBuilder as a sponsor citing the non-partisan shop’s work with the now president-elect. Whether there’s a great economic hangover for the Trump sector of the campaign industry will be a big question for 2017.
Who will hackers hit next?
Cyber security was an issue that helped shape the story of 2016, and given the timing of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security report on the election intrusions, it’s going to carry over into 2017. Now, corporate America has been plagued by cyber attacks for years — Yahoo is still suffering the consequences of its breach — and there were warnings about vulnerabilities in the political world before the 2016 campaign. But those went unheeded.
Even with the public airing of John Podesta’s email, there will surely be other victims to follow: someone won’t get the memo. The question is whether these hacks will have economic repercussions. For instance, what if a firm has its internal correspondence about a client pitch or a contract dispute posted online? Will that be enough to close its doors?
Cyber security has been such a small portion of campaigns’ and committees budgets in recent cycles. That will certainly change and could foster a new niche segment of the industry.