Social media hold the key to transform political campaigning

I want to answer Gov. Jerry Brown’s very good question about the “non-TV voter,” posed about two weeks before Election Day – but first, I ought to address the handful of victory-lap news stories in the national media detailing a number of President Barack Obama’s political campaign staffers’ and consultants’ use of social media, big data, analytics and behavioral psychology.


The descriptions of Obama’s campaign efforts both energize and disappoint me. They excite me because, for the first time, a campaign has attempted to disrupt typical politics with the use of digital tools. But the stories disappoint me because in the state home to Silicon Valley, it begs the question: Why isn’t this California-bred talent and technology being put to use on California campaigns?


Perhaps that question is better asked in reverse: Why aren’t California political campaigns employing digital solutions to their full potential? Our state’s 11 ballot propositions alone were funded by more than one-third of a billion dollars, but an embarrassingly small percentage of that was spent online. And no candidate in California made a mark online this year the way we all intuitively know is possible.


The companies I run were involved in offering digital solutions to more than 300 campaigns across the country and across the political spectrum this election cycle, so I can tell you this much: No political campaigns in California are using digital tools to their full potential.


Social media and other digital campaign tools hold the power to truly transform politics – to reach individual voters, turn out supporters in powerful numbers and raise money from nontraditional donors. They can also give birth to a new kind of candidate and present issues in an authentic way, putting candidates in touch with citizens for meaningful exchanges, and responding rapidly to questions and criticism.


Instead, in 2012, California voters are still seeing a decades-old approach to campaigning, in which the lion’s share of donors’ money is spent on television ad buys, mostly in the waning weeks of the campaign season.


Consider this: More than $124 million was spent on both sides of Proposition 30, and on Election Day it passed with just 54 percent of the vote. Much of the money was spent on TV, and a campaign consultant on the “yes” side put its online expenditures at just under 3 percent of total money spent. That’s abysmal.


Proposition 38 provided another strong indication that it’s time for campaigns to focus more on digital solutions. Its proponents spent nearly $50 million, roughly half of which went to “TV or cable airtime and production costs.” Despite no opposition to the tax-raising measure (opponents reported raising just $42,000) and an electorate that favored tax increases (passing Proposition 30), Proposition 38 garnered only 27.7 percent of the vote.



On the other hand, the effort to defeat the genetically modified foods-focused Proposition 37 supplemented its TV spending with a heavy rotation of ads placed through Facebook and Google’s AdWords. Opponents defeated the proposition by a 5.5-percentage-point margin.


Increasingly, voters’ eyes and opinions are focused on their smartphones, tablets and laptops more than on commercial breaks during cable news broadcasts. So it makes a lot of sense that Brown ran into a young woman in San Diego just two weeks out from Election Day who had never heard of his Proposition 30. She didn’t watch TV, she told him, prompting the septuagenarian to ask “How do you reach the non-TV voter?”


The answer is simple. You reach today’s voters and influential advocates online, through social media, well-placed ads and email communications. You reach voters by following their eyeballs.


There are incredible digital tools being developed here in Northern California that make that not only possible, but effective. Through smart email distribution, social platforms and database management, it is easy to ferret out like-minded voters, persuade them and increase their propensity to vote. That’s what democracy is all about – empowering individual voices and giving every voter a meaningful interaction with the electoral process.


For our democracy to continue working, political campaigns ought to spend a much larger percentage of their resources on digital tools, rather than on expensive and antiquated TV ads. To truly reach voters, sway undecideds and mobilize supporters, a much larger focus needs to be put online. It’s high time to end the era of the Sacramento political consultant getting rich off TV ad buys that fail to reach voters.

Ed’s Note: Bryan Merica is partner and co-founder of ID Media Partners, a Sacramento company providing social media consulting.

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