The stakes are high for Democratic National Committee (DNC) chief mobilization officer Patrick Stevenson.
With just three weeks until the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Stevenson, the organization’s digital marketing director and his team have been leaning heavily into digital communications such as email and text messaging to mobilize voters and raise donations for the Biden campaign.
Of course, the heavy reliance on digital this year is in part because COVID-19 has put the kibosh on in-person fundraising and door-to-door canvassing, the “bread and butter” of traditional campaigning, Stevenson said.
But people have been surprisingly responsive to virtual canvassing. The DNC raised $364.5 million for the Biden campaign in August solely online, setting a one-month fundraising record for a presidential campaign.
“People realize that this is one of the most important elections in modern history,” Stevenson said. “They are responding to email and text solicitation and virtual fundraising events”
Stevenson, who also worked for the Barack Obama campaign in 2012 and the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, spoke with Campaign US about virtual campaigning -- and how SMS has emerged as a breakout tactic.
“It's a mobile adoption thing,” he said. “People are getting more comfortable giving money on their phone.”
Campaign US: You had to throw out the entire campaign playbook this year. Where did you start?
PATRICK STEVENSON: The good thing about my department is we use digital strategies to complement in-person events and door-to-door [canvassing]. So it wasn't too huge of a change for my team.
We were always planning to run a strong text message campaign and to have voters make calls to other voters in battleground states. But whereas before those were part of the campaign strategy, now it's pretty much entirely the campaign strategy.
How did you use digital tactics to make up for in-person fundraising?
We figured out how to do a lot of things on Zoom. Grassroots fundraisers are big: Donate as little as $1 and get on a Zoom with Barack Obama and Joe Biden. We did one with Obama, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph that raised several million dollars. It gives people a good experience with the campaign, direct interaction with the principal and builds connection.
What channels in particular are working for the DNC this election cycle?
Since 2008, email has been the major source of online fundraising and it remains effective. Direct mail pretty much works as good as it ever has. A certain percentage of our donors are older and want to write a check. We put a URL on the envelope so they can make an online donation too.
The channel that has truly emerged is SMS. We ran a broadcast SMS program in 2016 and 2018, and raised a fair amount of money, but it was not anywhere near email and direct mail. It was very much an ancillary channel. On this campaign, a full list SMS blast typically raises more money for us than any email.
How have you leaned into SMS?
We have a bigger SMS list than the past and we’ve spent more resources building it.
Culturally, we've done a good job of educating supporters that it’s a good way to get involved. The Democratic National Convention broadcast [in August] was studded with asks to “text donations to 330-30.” It was much more of a secondary ask in previous elections.
How are you personalizing messages to voters in different states?
Localization is really important in politics because different states vote for different people. So when anyone signs up for our email list, we collect their email address and ZIP code. Because we have self-identified and provided location information, we can target people in different regions with personalized messages.
The ability to talk to supporters with a simple personalized graphic, or say “Hey California, you have these senate and house races,” is cool. Content based on donation history, where someone lives and what elections are in the community really pops.
In 2016, the Trump campaign proved to be more digitally savvy than the Democrats. Is that still the case, and how are you working to close that gap?
I worked on president Obama's reelection campaign in 2012, and I remember pretty much everyone on the campaign had some type of profile written about them. In 2016, my boss was the same guy. When we lost, everyone was like, “These idiots got outrun by Donald Trump.”
There's a little bit of truth in both. We did objectively run a better campaign on digital than Mitt Romney did in 2012. In 2016, Donald Trump and the right wing used parts of the internet better than the Democrats. In politics, this is what you sign up for. If you win you are the smartest people ever and if you lose you are the dumbest.
What’s the core message of the DNC’s campaign strategy this year?
We’re focused on the fact that voting is complicated in the pandemic and a lot of people are voting differently than in years past. We're investing in voter education. Our platform iwillvote.com houses the most centralized voting resources that have ever existed in one place.
If you're signed up for the DNC, we don't necessarily need to persuade you to be a Democrat, or that it's important to vote. But because voting is new to lots of people this year, making sure all voters are equipped with information they need is more important than ever.
This interview has been edited for clarity.