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The revolution will be online: How Democrats are trying to catch up to Trump

2020 hopefuls speak at California convention

Weeks after launching his 2020 bid, Joe Biden surpassed President Trump on one key measure: digital ad spending. The news served as an acknowledgement that the former vice president, now in his third run for the White House, understood that the modern presidential campaign is now largely won and lost online.

But the number belies the fact that Biden and the rest of the 2020 Democratic field still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to competing with Trump on digital.

"It is 18 months before an election and [The Trump Campaign is] talking to voters about issues that matter to them," said Dan Scarvalone, senior director at Democratic digital strategy firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. "That's creating a gap among the persuadable voters that are going to be critical this election that Democrats in some form or fashion have to find a way to catch up with."

Biden spent $1.2 million on Facebook and Google from late April to early May, compared to Mr. Trump's $924,000, according to data compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive. And combined, the 2020 Democratic candidates have spent $4.8 million so far on digital. Yet the data doesn't tell the whole story.

Digital strategists say that Democrats at this stage are spending more on digital in order to build up name identification, cultivate their voter and donor databases, and qualify for the debate stage. Many of them are starting from scratch. And they are all acting independently of each other and the national party apparatus. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has had a years-long head start.

Republicans and Democrats alike attribute Mr. Trump's success in the digital ad and fundraising space to a few factors. Most significantly, the campaign has fully integrated with the Republican National Committee (RNC), streamlining their voter data files in a way that allows them to target people online more effectively. 

Digital has long been in the Trump team's DNA. Brad Parscale, who ran the team's 2016 digital strategy, is now the campaign manager for Mr. Trump's re-election. This time around, Mr. Trump has the added bonus of incumbency -- and is so far without a significant primary challenge.

"On the Republican side, you are going to be able to think ahead with a clarity of purpose that the other side is not going to have," says Zac Moffatt, a GOP digital strategist. "On the Democratic side, it's like Game of Thrones."

The reason the digital arms race is simple: it's where the voters are. American adults spend approximately six hours per day with digital media, according to a Tech for Campaigns report. And by the end of this year, digital advertising is expected to be 54 percent of all ad spending in the United States, according to a forecast from eMarketer.

"In a primary, that is the difference between winning and losing. In a general, it's worth three to five points," says GOP digital strategist Chris Wilson.  

Inside Mr. Trump's "digital-first" operation

Republicans say their most effective digital tool is the president himself. And not just because he is a prolific Tweeter, though that is certainly a bonus. "The best reason why Republicans are winning [digital] now is because of the president. He very clearly made it a digital-first campaign," a Republican National Committee aide told CBS. 

The campaign has built a voter file of 35 million, and says they aim to grow it to 50 million by Election Day. (For comparison, Mr. Trump won about 63 million votes in 2016.) And the team is spending a couple of million a month on digital. The bulk of the spending is on Facebook, with the remainder focused on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

The Trump team is also building out a new app "for the process of improving data-mining operations and usage of the campaign's volunteer network," a campaign official told CBS.

Most of the RNC's digital operation is in-house, with a group of 25 staffers dedicated to the effort.

The RNC says the most effective digital ads are ones built around the wall and immigration. But it's not all red meat. Other ads engage supporters through a range of issues, asking them to stand with the president or just wish him a happy birthday. 

In 2016, the ads focusing on Mr. Trump were more effective than the ones targeting his opponents, officials said. But that doesn't mean they aren't ignoring the opposition. "Every time we get a new nickname from the president on the 2020 Democrat, we run with that, too," the RNC aide said.

Mr. Trump's rallies also have a high success rate when it comes to engagement and growing the voter database. The campaign and the RNC encourages attendees to sign up through their text system and keeps them involved.

The data sharing component is what Republicans believe sets them apart from the Democrats, and gives an advantage to Mr. Trump. "You have 23 Democrats not sharing data, not sharing that info," the aide said. "Our data is available to every single Republican free of charge."

"A New Playbook:" What Democrats are building out

In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's loss, Democrats were forced to figure out what went wrong -- and what could be fixed in time for the midterm elections.

"The party needed to move quickly past judgment. We needed to move very quickly to the playbook that actually works when you have a president that can talk to one out of three Americans on Twitter every single day," said Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Independent Expenditure for the 2018 midterms.

One place in dire need of digital investment was the Democratic National Committee itself. While the RNC had spent the last several years pouring money into its voter database and digital infrastructure, the DNC was still relying on a database built in 2011, one that had not been designed to last more than one election cycle.

"I think the people who were here before were doing what they could with limited resources for a really long time," said one DNC official, who believes that Democrats fell behind in digital innovation in part due to the successes of the Obama presidential campaigns.

After 2016, newly-elected DNC Chairman Tom Perez made investing in digital a priority. The DNC recruited talent from the tech industry to work on everything from analytics to cybersecurity to digital advertising.  

In February, the DNC's new, more powerful data warehouse launched with fresh, standardized datasets from all 50 states. The new service is capable of supporting thousands of users and providing useful data analytics tools to campaigns of all sizes.

"We're modernizing our tech and data, expanding our digital strategy, and harnessing the energy of our grassroots supporters to not only defeat Trump, but to elect Democrats up and down the ballot for years to come," Perez said in a statement.

The party also has what one official called its "secret weapon": the online tool ActBlue. It allows small-dollar donors to use their credit cards to donate directly to campaigns -- which doesn't sound too threatening, as secret weapons go. But at the moment, Republicans lack an equivalent service.

The eventual Democratic nominee will be able to take the DNC's own voter list and cross-reference that information with roughly 7 million people who have saved their payment information on ActBlue to find proven donors who have yet to contribute to their campaign or the party.

"We can then target the hell out of that audience," one DNC official said.

While the DNC worked on upgrading its digital infrastructure, congressional Democrats in the House of Representatives worked on upgrading their digital strategy.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hired dozens of new digital strategists and placed several of them on each of the group's regional political teams. The committee also launched an in-house ad agency, one of the first of its kind.

By March 2017, the DCCC had spent $2.7 million on digital ads to build its email list. At the end of the campaign cycle, the group raised $103.6 million online. Strategists worked every day on boosting the candidates' message and name ID in the digital space, helping Democrats win 40 seats in the House.

For Sena, the elevation of digital at the DCCC helped "crack a very important code" for Democrats, one that marries quality candidates and a healthcare-focused message with aggressive digital tactics.

"The truth is [digital] should be a part of the Democrat DNA and armor in everything we do when we go to battle," Sena said. 

"This has to be a culture shift:" Winning in 2020 and beyond

In today's political environment, strategists say, digital is woven into everything a campaign has to do, whether that's raising money, persuading voters, turning them out to vote or registering them.

For example, ahead of his official kickoff in Philadelphia last month, the Biden campaign targeted Democrats who lived within a five-mile radius of the city and ran Spanish-language digital ads in Reading, Pa., where Latinos make up 60 percent of the population. The campaign says 6,000 people showed up in person for the kickoff, during which the campaign raised more than $1,000 per minute.

The needs of the modern campaign have pushed the majority of the 2020 presidential campaigns to change the way organizations have been structured for decades, elevating staffers with a digital background to positions of leadership.

"We need to make a shift where political strategists who understand how to reach people - and how to organize them using the tools and channels available to us - are starting to drive strategy on campaigns," says Tara McGowan, chief executive of Democratic digital strategy firm ACRONYM. "I do think this is the first cycle we're seeing that on both sides."

Some Democratic presidential campaigns are launching in-house ad agencies to run their media buys on Facebook and Google, forgoing outside firms in favor of what some believe is a more focused and nimble digital ad operation run by campaign staffers. Others are investing heavily in digital organizing tools to help supporters register and collect information from potential voters, organize local events and communicate directly with campaign staff anywhere in the country.

"This has to be a culture shift. Campaigns have been run more or less the same way for decades and yet the way we communicate has changed dramatically," McGowan says.

The increase in digital ad spending is another clear sign that Democratic political operatives are changing their thinking, strategists say.

"Until a couple years ago, Democrats were still of the opinion that more money needed to be put in television than digital by a fairly obscene margin," says Scarvalone of Bully Pulpit. "Digital only got the dollars that television couldn't take."

While campaigns still rely heavily on TV ads, which account for a substantial majority of their advertising budgets, investment in online messaging is growing. Digital ad spending increased 260 percent from the 2014 midterms to the 2018 midterms, according to a Kantar Media report.

Several Democratic digital strategists also believe the diverse and crowded primary field will force campaigns to innovate to remain competitive, leading to long-term advantages for Democrats in future elections.

"On the Republican side, there's so much digital expertise that's concentrated in one place: the Trump campaign," Scarvalone says. "I actually think their opportunity for innovation is less because they're not having that competition between the different groups in how to get it done."

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