I’m Nick Corasaniti, and I’ll be taking over the newsletter on Tuesdays to talk about all things digital media: messaging, strategy, security and disinformation.
We’re somewhere between “don’t worry, it’s still early!” and “buckle up, it’s the final stretch!” in the Democratic primary calendar, but there is at least one emerging certainty: The 2020 election is going to be fought, and probably won, online.
And it’s shaping up to be a doozy.
To get a sense of the scale of the digital campaign, just glance at Facebook’s ad database, which shows how the presidential campaigns have poured millions of dollars into the platform since last year — and how the Trump campaign is vastly outspending the Democrats.
“We spend more time online than any other medium,” said Zac Moffatt, a founder of the political consultancy group Targeted Victory and a Republican digital strategist. Now, he said, political campaigns are finally catching up. “We’ve been underinvested for so long. The Trump campaign, even they would tell you, they have excess capacity to do even more.”
And it’s clear that this digital campaign will be unlike any other. Let’s take a look at some of the revelations from just the past three weeks.
After Facebook announced that it would not be policing the veracity of political ads on its platform, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign responded with a false ad of its own. “Breaking News,” it said. “Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.”
Of course, Mr. Zuckerberg and his company have not endorsed anyone, as the ad later clarified. But it was a brazen statement about the frustration within many Democratic campaigns toward Facebook’s policy, which Democrats believe will allow the Trump campaign to spread false information to millions of users.
That said, Democrats are still spending heavily on the platform, to the tune of roughly $32 million this year across 19 candidates, outpacing the money they have spent on television ads.
Yet they are being heavily outflanked by the Trump campaign, which has placed digital infrastructure at the center of its campaign strategy. An expert told my colleagues Kevin Roose and Matthew Rosenberg that the digital delta between the Trump campaign and the Democrats is “like a supercar racing a little Volkswagen Bug.”
Also this month, the Trump campaign found itself at the center of a hacking attempt that was apparently backed by the Iranian government. And just yesterday, Facebook announced that it had taken down four state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, three originating in Iran and one in Russia.
All of this illustrates the far-reaching power of the major social platforms, digital strategists say.
“Whether that increase in power and opportunity ends up being more opportunity for mischief (or outright malfeasance), or opportunity to reclaim our civic life, might be up to how much we’re willing to pay attention and take back responsibility and control over the process,” said Michael Slaby, a former digital leader in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the chief strategist for Harmony Labs.
So as we gird for the next 12-plus months before Election Day, I hope Tuesdays will serve as a road map through the digital morass. We’ll look at what the campaigns are doing smartly, or not so smartly, online. We’ll assess the spread, and sources, of misinformation. We’ll pick apart notable ads. And we’ll keep an eye on the ongoing effort to secure our elections.
So, even though it’s still early … buckle up.
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The Buttigieg Campaign Finds a ‘Barrier’
Our colleague Trip Gabriel sends this report:
As Pete Buttigieg gains strength as a presidential candidate, ticking upward in polls and raking in donations, one continuing weakness is the cool reception he gets from black voters.
A little-discussed reason for that disconnect surfaced Tuesday in an internal campaign memo that was written by a consultant to the campaign. It said Mr. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation was a significant obstacle for African-American voters in South Carolina, an early-primary state where black voters make up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate.
Summarizing three focus groups of undecided black voters in the state, the memo concludes that “being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it.”
The focus groups were small and not statistically representative of the state’s electorate at large, to say nothing of black voters nationwide. But the memo sheds some light on how the Buttigieg campaign sees one of his biggest challenges in the primary.
Among 24 black voters ages 25 to 65 recruited by the Benenson Strategy Group in July, few had heard of Mr. Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind. Although being gay was not necessarily a deal breaker, many of the voters feared it would make him unelectable against President Trump, according to the memo, which was first reported by McClatchy.
On learning about Mr. Buttigieg’s biography and record, several people seized on a single mention that he lives with his husband, complaining that he was flaunting being gay.
“That was too much information,” one woman said.
“I don’t like the fact that he threw out there that he lives with his husband,” a man said.
While many of the voters said they were not personally prejudiced, they said they believed that others, especially Republicans, would have problems with Mr. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation and that he would be a weak nominee.
“I don’t think he’s going to be able to be the one to bridge the gap,” a woman said. “I mean, it would be interesting, but it’s not going to happen.”
But there were also positive takeaways for the Buttigieg campaign. Once the voters learned more about the candidate, they scored him highly on his military service, his record in South Bend and his faith. And they were impressed when they heard him speak.
Mr. Buttigieg might raise his prospects among skeptical black voters, the consultant wrote, by winning “endorsements from ‘cool’ black people” to further the notion that being gay wouldn’t be a vulnerability in a face-off with Mr. Trump.
On the whole, the memo says that Mr. Buttigieg’s biggest problem with black voters — one he shares with other candidates — is simply that he is not former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“The affinity these voters feel for Joe Biden is deep and strong, rooted in his relationship with Barack Obama who is the ultimate validator,” the memo states.
While Mr. Biden is struggling to hold off rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote next year, a polling average in South Carolina shows him with a 25-point lead.
A Digital Feast
Nick here, again. Often on Tuesdays, we’ll assess a noteworthy campaign ad in this space. But aside from all things messaging, I also really, really like to eat. Especially on the campaign trail.
So while I have your attention, I’ll occasionally be sharing the #campaignfoodreport, an Instagram series I started while covering the Trump campaign in 2016 with help from my colleague Jonathan Martin (and some other campaign road warriors like NBC’s Ali Vitali).
First up, with many of the 2020 candidates in Iowa this week, we’ll salivate over a Hawkeye State staple: the loose meat sandwich.
Also known as the tavern sandwich, the crumbly, greasy loose meat sandwich was first introduced as a “steamed hamburger” in Montana in 1920. Six years later, it migrated east, emerging as a “loose meat sandwich” at the original Maid-Rite fast food restaurant in Muscatine, Iowa. An institution was born.
With ground beef cooked crumbled (not molded into a patty), sizzled with a fistful of salt, onions and pepper, and smacked with yellow mustard, it’s as much a pulverized hamburger as it is a “sloppy joe without the slop.” The fatty concoction is cut with some sweet pickles.
Along with the Maid-Rite version, perhaps the most famous loose meat sandwich can be found under a parking garage in Ottumwa, Iowa, where the Canteen Lunch restaurant has been piling them high since 1936. The squat, yellow building served as the inspiration for the “Lanford Lunch Box” on the sitcom “Roseanne.”
Earlier this month, I traversed Iowa tracking down the 80-plus family members of Senator Cory Booker scattered around the state. One night, with my dining options hobbled by an hourlong Booker selfie line that began at 8:30 p.m., I decamped to the basement of the St. Burch Tavern in Iowa City, where a Green Goddess salad helped assuage the guilt of my second loose meat sandwich of the week.
Loose meat sandwiches can be found all over the Midwest, but sadly, not anywhere near The New York Times’s headquarters. Yet.
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