Look to Wisconsin for Lessons on a Digital Campaign During a Pandemic

Look to Wisconsin for Lessons on a Digital Campaign During a Pandemic

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The coronavirus has completely upended everything we know about, well, everything, including the 2020 campaign. But for those wondering how to possibly mount an organizing effort and down-to-the-wire campaign in an all-digital, all-remote environment, look to Wisconsin.

Indeed, the state that was forced to vote during a pandemic was also forced to campaign in one, and some of the digital tactics used by Wisconsin’s Democratic Party and the campaign of a liberal judicial challenger, Jill Karofsky, were probably crucial to her sweeping victory in the swingiest of swing states.

Back on March 15, the state’s Democratic Party announced that it would replace its “traditional canvassing operation with a digital organizing program,” which Ben Wikler, the state party chairman, explained meant that “our whole organizing operation has switched to working on getting people to request absentee ballots in Wisconsin.”

For Democratic organizers and volunteers in Wisconsin, that meant suddenly expanding their get-out-the-vote operation from a four-day blitz leading up to Election Day to a three-week slog. Volunteers often juggled advocacy with technical assistance, including hopping on a FaceTime call with voters to help them navigate the online ballot request process.

“Democrats were organizing with every tool that didn’t require crossing the six-foot social distancing barrier,” Mr. Wikler said. “We held town halls on Zoom, volunteers got on FaceTime with voters, we used every tool in the tool kit and invented more,” he said. “I think FaceTiming with voters to help them figure out how to operate computers had never been part of our get-out-the-vote plan.”

For the Karofsky campaign, not being able to continue door-knocking meant significantly ramping up phone calls and text messages, and building a vast tracking system to identify where voters were in the absentee process. The campaign also followed up to make sure voters knew how and where to cast their ballot.

“The number of touches on a voter had to increase exponentially,” said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin who ran multiple campaigns and served as a senior adviser to Ms. Karofsky. “You were basically touching them on every stage of the process.”

On the day of the election, the Karofsky campaign sent more than 125,000 text messages using specialized software that makes it easier to send out thousands of texts, though it still requires a staff member or volunteer to push send for each message.

“It takes a lot of human energy, and for us it was that human energy that is usually focused on the doors,” said Mr. Chheda (pronounced CHED-dah).

Mr. Chheda also pointed out that overall behavioral changes caused by the pandemic meant shifting some normal messaging strategies. For Ms. Karofsky, that meant holding telephone town halls, an old tactic popular for constituent outreach but not as popular in campaigns. Now, with more people at home, they would regularly get around 6,000 voters on a call. And in smaller campaigns that wouldn’t often spend money on pre-roll ads on Hulu or YouTube, the surge in online viewership as more voters are confined to their homes made these digital ads worth the spend.

Smaller races, such as city alderman in Milwaukee, faced even greater challenges. The digital tools available to bigger campaigns often have some form of geographic borders baked into them, such as a Facebook ad targeted at a congressional district. There is no option for city alderman.

So Mr. Chheda and his team set about making a custom audience that would essentially duplicate those geographic targeting options on Facebook.

“We uploaded a list of addresses that were in the district, and then we targeted mobile devices that were within 50 feet of those addresses,” Mr. Chheda said. “We basically created a map of the district,” he said. “Not at hard connections, but at mobile connections around those latitude and longitude spots.”

Of course, every state has its own byzantine laws and legal processes for voting, and some don’t even offer a no-excuse option to vote by mail. But with election laws changing and primary days shifting amid the pandemic, Wisconsin could provide a road map for some states, according to Mr. Wikler.

“I think the Wisconsin organizing model is a scalable answer to the question of how to organize during a pandemic,” he said.

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Normally, here on Ad of the Week, we look at a piece of paid media that stands out for its message, tactic or style. But today we’re looking at the free media that is driving the entire political conversation: a 12-minute, 21-second video of former President Barack Obama endorsing Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Conventional wisdom holds that it’s important to keep videos on social media short, particularly on Twitter. But Mr. Obama’s post has broken through the clutter, with 5.4 million views as of 6:45 p.m.

After months of keeping silent during the Democratic primary, Mr. Obama seemed to have a lot he wanted to get off his chest. Were campaigns not sheltering in place, he probably could have said all of this and more from a podium, with his former vice president at his side, celebrating the endorsement.

Mr. Obama’s video (filmed in his home) doubled as an address to the nation, starting with a touch of presidential speechifying offering comfort to the millions affected by the coronavirus.

The message: Unity, in so many words. But Mr. Obama also echoed another candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in pitching the Biden campaign as a big tent: “Join us.” He noted that it was important to run beyond the record of his administration, borrowing a phrase from Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as he said the country needs “real structural change.”

On policy, Mr. Obama echoed much of Mr. Biden’s platform, calling for building on the Affordable Care Act and tackling student loan debt.

The takeaway: The dynamic isn’t exactly natural — former president thrust into an unfamiliar role as his sidekick’s sidekick, as my colleague Glenn Thrush described it — but it appears evident that Mr. Obama will be a much more vocal part of the larger Biden effort.

The former president counts a vast political network, and will be a key fund-raising asset for a Biden campaign that has often struggled to raise cash. But he also seems eager to get out there. As he concluded in a follow-up tweet, “See you on the campaign trail.”

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