TIME elections

Democrats and Republicans Unite to Push Digital Campaigns

Operatives from both parties agree that TV is giving way to online and other viewing, and that it's time for ad budgets change with the times

Democrats and Republicans are battling it out across the country ahead of the midterm elections, but for three-and-a-half hours this week in a darkened office suite across the Potomac from the Capitol, party operatives united behind a common message: Digital campaigns are the future.

Armed with fresh survey data and live streams of two focus groups being conducted in drab conference rooms in Des Moines and Charlotte, a bipartisan group of pollsters and digital operatives presented data that more and more voters are abandoning traditional television for streaming, smartphone, and tablet viewing, and argued for an increased role for technology and new media in campaigns.

The results were part of an “Off the Grid” survey sponsored in part by Google, which, like the digital firms hosting the event, has every interest in helping shift campaign ad dollars from television to the web.

Asked to describe how tech has changed since he was 18, one twenty-something Iowa focus group participant answered swiftly: “Mobile, fast, and efficient.”

“I haven’t watched live TV in years,” chimed in another. Almost 30 percent of those surveyed said they had not watched live television other than sports in the last week—a figure higher for target voters—and more said they are headed in that direction.

Over Cosi sandwiches and beers, 30 reporters, campaign operatives, and Google employees listened as former Mitt Romney pollster Neil Newhouse and Democratic pollster Julie Hootkin painted a sobering picture for those in the traditional political ad business. They chuckled as voters said they look to Wikipedia or candidate websites for information about who to vote for, bypassing cable networks and newspapers that have traditionally monopolized the space. Many

“They try to avoid all political ads,” Newhouse said, summarizing the 800 telephone surveys and two focus groups that were conducted, saying campaigns must now ask themselves: “Given that behavior, how do you still get your message across?”

It is hardly a new insight, tracking the results of a half-dozen similar surveys and pollster’s two prior polls on the subject. The Obama campaign, in particular, made a priority of reaching out to voters through nontraditional means, from YouTube to BuzzFeed ads. But many campaigns, especially Republican ones, have been slow on the uptake.

Zac Moffatt, the co-founder of Targeted Victory and Mitt Romney’s former digital director, took aim at the “flat-earth society” of candidates and general consultants who are focused solely on television ads. The event is the latest sign that digital firms find themselves competing not across the aisle, but against traditional media hogging campaign budgets—and they’re working hard to get the word out that times are changing.

“Before hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in the fall,” Moffatt said, “it is vital that campaigns are aware of the realities of voters going off the grid or time shifting their media consumption instead of stubbornly believing that 1,000 gross rating points of broadcast will solve all issues.”

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