One major trend of presidential campaigns in the 21st century is how they’ve grown to more and more closely resemble a tech outfit, using digital solutions to make themselves more efficient. What was a curiosity in 2004 is now a major pillar of any serious campaign, right alongside oppo research and TV spending.
Howard Dean’s run in the 2004 Democratic primary changed how campaigns are run. Using digital tools that others saw as ineffective, or an afterthought, Dean organized thousands of people on platforms like Meetup and raised more money online than any other candidate. His campaign was also the first to be undone by an unfortunate viral moment: the infamous Dean Scream (the effect of this might be overstated).
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pushed these concepts even further. He used digital tools as a force multiplier, allowing people to do work that otherwise would’ve required a large number of staffers and campaign volunteers. He also used a burgeoning site called YouTube to let people watch and replay his attention-grabbing speeches. As president, he recruited tech advisers from Silicon Valley’s hottest companies, creating yet another revolving door, this time between the executive branch and the technology industry.
The Trump campaign took things further by using the platform, according to one Facebook executive, better than any other candidate, spending millions on targeted ads. On the flip side, Trump used his Twitter account to generate endless free publicity. It appears he is using a similar playbook this cycle.
Every campaign in the 2020 race is spending heavily on Facebook advertising now. All of them are tweeting, and posting YouTube videos, and some of them have bespoke apps to help turn out support. It hasn’t stopped at the campaigns — local parties have turned to tech as well, which didn’t turn out great for the recent Iowa caucuses.
Tech is now ingrained in campaign strategy and execution. But perhaps the best illustration of how much the tech industry has infected campaigns is Mike Bloomberg’s, which features all of the spending-to-success largesse and compromised morality of a Silicon Valley megacorporation, while lacking any of its charm.
Like anyone who sets foot on the campuses of companies like Google or Facebook, the Bloomberg campaign is luring people who might otherwise not be charismatic about the campaign effort with lavish perks. Field-organizer salaries start at $72,000, nearly twice what any other campaign is probably going to pay. Staffers get latest-gen iPhones and laptops too (for security, the campaign told the New York Times) as well as three catered meals every day, just like tech-campus employees. The thinking is that, presumably, campaign workers will put their hesitations aside for a salary bump that one person described to the New York Post as life-changing (they didn’t take the job).
But the mega-tech orientation of Bloomberg’s campaign doesn’t stop with staffing decisions. You can see it play out in its digital strategy as well. Bloomberg is taking some now-standard approaches, like pumping money into Facebook ads, and doing other things that you might not see in a presidential campaign. That includes paying popular Instagram accounts to advertise on Mike’s behalf, attempts at Twitter humor that cause severe bouts of secondhand embarrassment, and paying barely vetted randos $2,500 a month to text their friends that they like Bloomberg. Some are reportedly sticking to the letter of the law and not the spirit, undercutting or phoning in their pro-Bloomberg posts.
Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s 2004 campaign, told the Times that the cash-strapped nature of a presidential run often requires being more creative with limited funds. “A lot of the things we pioneered were exactly because we had to be that creative,” he said. This is somewhat analogous to the model of a bootstrap startup: scrappy, and funded by a few friends and family.
The flipside of this is what Bloomberg’s campaign is. A series of shots in the dark and money-sucking experimentation, buoyed by a single funding source. Bloomberg is not accepting donations and his campaign runs off of his own enormous fortune. It has been estimated that he could spend up to $1 billion on his campaign — an unfathomable amount of money to most Americans and also barely a dent in Bloomberg’s $62 billion. This is analogous to how companies like Facebook and Google operate, using revenue collected almost entirely from a single product — their programmatic ad tools — to fund moonshots like driverless cars, or drones that beam internet access, or virtual reality, or video-game streaming. Or, more troubling for Bloomberg’s chances, his campaign is being run like a tech startup that’s bloated with venture-capital money and has no real path to profitability. Big Tech companies have graveyards full of dead software and hardware, because they are able to fully realize and implement ideas before determining if they even work. At these companies — and Bloomberg 2020 — there is no idea so foolish or counterintuitive that it can’t be attempted.
Does paying Instagram meme burglars for their endorsement increase support? Who knows? Only Bloomberg is able to try that approach out. Does spending lavishly on free food for staffers and for rally attendees increase loyalty? Again, only Bloomberg can take that swing. Can Bloomberg hire digital organizers who can sidestep Facebook’s advertising policies and remain on the platform’s good side because he’s buying a lot of standard ad units as well? Maybe! Whether or not any of these ideas achieve their desired effect is up in the air.
Similar to large tech companies, Bloomberg has to balance outward-facing liberal ideals (gun control, climate change, LGBTQ rights) with the fact that he is an ardent capitalist (and Republican until 2018!) whose primary measure of success is in financial returns. Every tech company of a certain size has been rocked by recent controversies in which their progressive stances butt up against their quest for cash. Google employees revolted over the company’s military-contract aspirations, Microsoft employees are livid about the company’s contracts with ICE, Microsoft and Amazon are sparring over a $10 billion Pentagon project, and Facebook is at best neutral about spreading Trump’s political messaging (which conflict with stated company values) far and wide for a fee.
The big difference is that political-campaign employees tend to have stronger ideological principles than the tech workers using their genius to build more effective ad-sales technology (it helps, in this regard, that campaigns are temporary). Various press reports feature people who were tempted to double their salaries and yet couldn’t stomach pretending to like Mike. That means that it’s unlikely Bloomberg will face internal revolt for contradictory messaging in the same way that tech companies have. In recently unearthed comments from 2016, Bloomberg said his presidential platform would be to “defend the banks,” and last week, he released a plan to get tough on Wall Street. If we think of Bloomberg 2020 operating in the same way as a large tech company — but without any internal dissent — which of his impulses should we expect to win out?