The candidates to chair the Democratic National Committee have been relentlessly calling, emailing, texting and flying thousands of miles to woo the 447 voting committee members before Saturday’s election.
But the ultimate backroom campaign has this year come with a 21st century twist: a tsunami of Facebook, Twitter and other digital ads personally targeting DNC members, leaving no escape from campaign pleas during their waking hours.
“There were multiple things every day that I saw in difference places, and I felt a little Facebook-stalked, too,” said Washington Democratic Party Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski, a supporter of Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid for chairman. “The ads were everywhere.”
The small number of voters makes party chair races insular, person-to-person affairs. But the Democratic candidates in 2017 have also run aggressive digital advertising campaigns, looking for any opportunity to get their message out, build momentum beyond the voting base — and remind voters of their presence even during a Facebook break.
Over 70 percent of the DNC members who responded to a POLITICO survey about the race recalled seeing ads from one or more candidates during the race. (Numerous Democratic operatives in Washington have also seen a steady stream of ads on Facebook and other platforms.)
The ads have had an effect: DNC members have definitely noticed them — some so much that they are specifically looking forward to the end of the campaign in order to make the incessant digital targeting stop.
“It’s too much,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Bruce Poole, who backs former Labor Secretary Tom Perez. “Pretty much like every American with a smartphone and a computer these days, we are over-communicated. But it’s at the point where, I think, all of us would jump out of a window if we could.”
And while Podlodowski said she noticed ads from various candidates, she also said they “weren’t particularly persuasive.”
“I don’t think that that’s exactly a medium I would use when you have such a closed and frankly accessible electorate,” she said. “It’s not as though people can’t pick up the phone and talk to us and get a sense of where our concerns are.”
But strategists working with some of the underdog candidates saw digital advertising as an especially important tool.
“Basically the goal for running advertising for someone like Sally was awareness,” said Norm Sterzenbach, the Democratic strategist advising Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown’s DNC bid. “She’s not as well-known as Congressman Ellison or Secretary [Tom] Perez so our goal was to increase awareness of her among DNC members. We basically targeted all 447 DNC members and ran ongoing advertising to them. We ran search advertising so anybody searching for her name or the DNC race would find her.”
Most of the campaigns, according to staffers, haven’t signed up digital firms to build an advertising operation, instead using volunteers or staffers within their small campaigns to run digital efforts. Ellison’s team ran ads on Google, Facebook and Twitter using in-house staff. The Minnesota congressman’s team specifically targeted visitors to his DNC campaign website.
Perez’s campaign used Blue State Digital and Bully Pulpit Interactive, firms that grew out of Howard Dean and Barack Obama’s digitally innovative presidential campaigns, to set up his website and run digital advertising on Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat — often targeting Democrats in specific locations.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign employed McKenna Pihlaja, the Democratic media firm that helped his successful mayoral bid, to create video ads around the major DNC candidate forums (as well as his announcement video). The firm also geo-fenced — targeting people in a certain geographical area depending on their online behavior — around forum events and advertised on Instagram.
“We made a short video after [the Phoenix forum] with a number of his answers from the forum. So we took the video that the DNC posted of the whole forum and we quickly edited it, added some pictures,” Buttigieg strategist Martha McKenna said. “We were doing, what I think is, real-time rapid response using video during the campaign.”
Sterzenbach also described geo-fencing around DNC forum events, trying to talk to as many interested parties at once for his candidate’s campaign.
“We’re targeting people where their online presence suggests they’re highly interested in Democratic politics and are functioning within a one-mile radius of the venue,” Sterzenbach said. “So whether that’s on mobile or laptop computers or just in some cases their home I suppose the idea is that people who are online at the forum will see her advertising. So it’s just giving that extra hit while they’re present.”