The Democrats lost the senate in history's most expensive midterm cycle. So why did so many races go Right? I think it comes down to one thing: Democratic nominees forgot about the power of the internet and tried fighting Republicans in a conventional war of television ads, mailers and rallies. Did no one tell the Left that Republicans own the more traditional weapons of political races? Are the lessons of Dean's presidential run of 2004 and the more successful Obama wins of 2008 and 2012 already forgotten? All of the campaigns that could have won have the telltale signs of a social media strategy gone wrong where candidates used polished, on-script, newsfeed-like use of Twitter and Facebook in lieu of authentic, engaging, off-script content that builds community, passion and votes. Some candidates committed electoral suicide by demanding visitors to their website to provide personal information before they could gain access.
The loss of the senate is a warning to all those liberals looking to jump into the 2016 ring. Go toe-to-toe with the GOP with TV commercials and high-profile events, and you will be proofreading your concession speech and congratulating your opponent on the evening of November 8, 2016. Worse yet, many of the potential presidential bidders already show the same symptoms of bad online behavior as those that could not deliver victory last night.
One of the best examples of bad online presence is Alison Lundergan Grimes. With $80million spent on the campaign, the Kentucky race had a total of 10,302 TV spots -- with more than 4000 for Grimes. Mitch McConnell not only outspent Grimes on television, he outspent her three-to-one in the digital world, according to campaign finance reports from June 2014. And it shows, a survey of Grimes' Twitter account reveals a flurry of impersonal retweets of her followers on Election Day, and very few from her on the days leading to the actual vote. Grimes' account is populated with tweets that seem measured and images from events that look more like a professional photographer took them than enthusiastic local voter. When I read the tweets, there's a lack of insight gained, and no real reason to follow her updates. It smacks more of bad corporate branding than inspiration for donations, volunteering and, most important, GOTV.
Her Facebook page is more inviting and almost convinces me that her campaign is about people. However, too much campaign bluster stands in the way. Nearly all the images are controlled and cold with slogans slapped on them. The FB page doesn't reflect the energized, warm person from earlier in the campaign when she sat with her grandma talking about taking back America. Instead, her online strategy lacks a sense of innovation and is solely focused on her (and not the people she wants to represent).
Nowhere did the sense of disinterest show itself more than on her Instagram page. This is the one social media site where you have the chance to tell your story in images and give the viewer backstage access. Yet again, the Grimes campaign opted for caution by merely posting a whooping 46 pictures for a period of 17 months.
On My Mind
The Georgia Senate Race was billed to be a real nail bitter -- and likely to go to a runoff with the balance of power in its results. Instead, it seemed early in the evening that Michelle Nunn was going to lose, and lose big. Nunn committed the most unholy of online Seppuku. Go to her website and you are met with a warm, welcoming candidate smiling on the front page. But to view the entire website, you must first disclose personal information. On average, when someone encounters a sign-in requirement for a website, an estimated 70 percent of visitors leave without logging in. This is something even a novice web developer or adviser knows. Such a demand of private information falls into the category of "rookie mistake," and perhaps too rookie for Georgian voters to trusted her with their vote.
Nunn and the Dems spent over $13million trying to beat Republicans with television ads. The online budget was about a third of that amount.
Some of what she did was positive. Nunn's twitter account does do what Grimes did not -- it begins to sketch out an authentic profile of who the potential senator truly is. The images are more impromptu and have that "imperfect" feel that is so endearing about personal pics within a twitter feed. There's even a candid pic of her father phone banking for her that speaks volumes. By scrolling through the feed, you get a sense of what Nunn finds important and what she stands for -- equal rights, social justice and community. The images all have that in-the-moment feel -- the way photos look when using a phone to take them. The images include community leaders and everyday folks. They are not campaign posters or slogans attached to them, and that makes them seem special and heartwarming. However, her narrative doesn't go far enough.
She opts to have a Facebook page that is safe and more manicured than the twitter feed, and thereby is less interesting and less engaging. The striking difference between the two platforms sends a mixed message, and damages the narrative of a person who cares about people. Maybe she uses her Instagram, Reddit or Pinterest accounts to bring the narrative back together and links to them via her official website, but alas, giving her personal information before I really know her is too high a price to find out. I am one of the 70%.
Of the top states with the biggest spending for television ads, (North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia and likely Alaska), the Dems lost. Compare those campaigns with their online spending, and you see a pattern emerge. The Republicans dictated the terms of battle with television ads/mailers/high-profile rallies. The creativity, reach and vastness of an online strategy was nothing more than an afterthought. A fast look at the losing campaigns also reveal similar or the exact same problems as Grimes and Nunn had with their online presence -- all are underdeveloped, cold, inconsistent, impersonal and to must "on-script." There is no cool factor, no bling, no awesomeness. North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Arkansas and Georgia have colleges and universities full of students as well as healthy populations of young people that if engaged will vote, but the Democrats decided to fight the Grand Ol' Party on their terms and their turf. And they lost.
Compare those losing campaigns with Mark Warner from Virginia. Lesson can be learned about Warner's win, and how he expresses himself online. First, unlike Grimes and Nunn, Warner has engaged social media for years. His twitter account attests to this fact by simply stating when he joined: July 2007 -- long before the election cycle began. When did Grimes start tweeting? 2011, probably right about the time she wanted to run for higher office. And Nunn? No idea. It's undisclosed, and only more fuel for the mixed-message she sends.
Warner is no social media genius, and that's a good thing for him. His online persona isn't about his campaign. It's about him. His last tweet as of Nov 5 (8:52am EST) was Oct 27, 2014, and it's says nothing about going to vote or the next big rally. It's a tweet that says: "Check out @OrbitalSciences's #Antares rocket launch right from your own backyard @ 6:49PM tonight! Viewing details: http://cbsn.ws/1w954CP "
Two tweets before that, you get to see Warner waving at a camera (in an awkward-kinda-way) honoring #Spiritday and in support of LGBT youth. There's no official-ness or polish to it. It's just him showing his support authentically. In fact, you really have to search for campaign images and event images. They are not the predominate feature of his feed. It gives you a chance to get to know him as a person. He's more pumped about a rocket launch than his campaign. Hell, I'm more interested in that too. And if he likes rockets, he probably likes science, sci-fi, Star Wars and that kind stuff. It endears him to a sense of exploration and the nerdy-geeky guy inside all of us. And that awkward wave, it lets us all feel more comfortable with how we are different and not trailed by professional photographers making us look perfect.
His official Senate website, like Nunn's website, asks for your personal information, but you can easily bypass the request to view the contents before you commit to giving it up. His Facebook page leaves much to be desired, but it still has a sense of "I'm a normal guy" -- no mixed messages. If he decides to run for president again (because he's run before), he'd have to up his game online. But for now, it works. And of the close races this mid-term cycle, he won where others did not.
Why is this important?
A victory for Dems in 2016 will be decided, not by television ads, but by online strategy. The candidate has already lost if joining Twitter is only due to declaring their candidacy. If they try to replicate the polished look of corporate branding online, they lose. Demanding personal information, sending mixed message or misusing different social sites will cause them to lose. This is not a two way street. Republicans are not as sensitive to the ways of the interwebs as liberals. Republicans can win by staying with their strengthens of conventional campaigning.
Most Sunday morning political pundits wouldn't blame the loss of the senate on the candidate's Facebook or Twitter feeds. But don't discredit this argument so fast. Watching the midterm elections, what I saw were campaigns getting sucked into a traditional air war with the GOP. They tried beating Republicans big money against big money, speech against speech and high profile rally to high profile rally. All of these things are tools long mastered by the Elephant in the room. For Democrats to win, they have to take the fight where they can out-innovative and outperform conventional wisdom. The only place to do that is the halls of social media with podcasts, funny pics and authentic moments. Did any of the Dem candidates have a Snapchat account? Or have a weekly podcast they posted on iTunes or Soundcloud? Did their passion even get the best of them that they dropped the "eff" bomb? Did any of them accidentally fart on live TV and laughed it off? Maybe, but if they did, it never made it to their Twitter feed. Instead, it was all canned messages and uninspiring gestures screaming "VOTE FOR ME BECAUSE I'M NOT A REPUBLICAN." And frankly, that's not enough of a reason for anyone to vote for anything.
The Next President
Social media is a barometer for political success. A quick glance at potential candidates for 2016 is revealing. Hilliary Clinton's twitter account has her looking at her phone seemingly uninterested in anyone around her. The prevailing message: "I'm not looking at you because I busy, so don't bother me." The picture itself seems overly crafted and pushes the message of being inauthentic.
And what is her last tweet? Oct 25, 2014: "New @oppnation data shows encouraging news on youth employment, but so much more to do. Read more about #JobOne here: http://bit.ly/1wa28XO " Click the link and you go to the Clinton Foundation. A narrative begins to form as you scrolling through her feed.
Didn't she go all over the country campaigning for people running for office? Not one image of any of her trips exists on her twitter feed. You would think that, at least, she'd have a pic of her and Kay Hagan -- but nope. Most people post 2 or 3 pictures when they go to the grocery store, so why is Clinton not showing us her trips to North Carolina, Kentucky and everywhere else? Does she have more important things to do than to be social on social media?
There is a wonderfully beautiful picture of her holding her grandchild that I personally love, but that's not enough to create a sense of community. If she wants to represent the people of the United States, why doesn't she snap a shot of herself every now with the people she meets or supports across America?
A visit to her official website makes me think she's using the same online strategist as Michelle Nunn. The front page is a portrait of Clinton looking into the distance with nothing else except a button labeled "Contact." Click on the Contact button and you have to give her all your personal information (name, address, email, phone number organization and the purpose for wanting to contact her), and still you don't get access to the website. What if you just wanted to see if she had an Instagram account and read about her position on education? Too bad. Based on Clinton's online profile alone, she'll lose the White House by 8 points.
It's a similar story for other frontrunners. Martin O'Malley, Ed Rendell, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Jim Webb -- to name a few. They all miss the point about online presence. All of their websites have the same mistakes as those campaigns that failed last night. They don't express themselves as people, but only as politicians. They don't seem as interested in representing you as they do in just having you to vote for them. There's a big difference between the two. Republicans don't have to perform well online. They have a different demographic and a different voice. If the 2016 campaign is fought on the airwaves and through emails or mailings, the White House will go red. And maybe that's a good thing. Maybe we need a Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum to run the show for four to eight years. All you have to do to know the future is follow the Democrats online.