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2020 was shaping up to be a huge year for US voter registration.
The pace of new voters registered in January and February more than doubled the same period in 2016, and overall 5.3 million more people were registered during the 2019-2020 primaries than the last presidential election.
In March, however, voter registration numbers dipped below 2016 and cratered more in April and May.
“Our work looks very different this year,” said Sydney Rose, director of programs at Vote.org, the largest independent voter registration group.
For one thing, the most common ways people register to vote – at a DMV office or in person by a campaign worker or volunteer – have nearly disappeared. As registration moves online and states respond to the COVID-19 crisis with provisional ballot laws, Vote.org must navigate a messy patchwork of different rules.
“There’s a lot to do this year to follow the changing laws and election practices by state and build that into our programs,” Rose said.
For example, some states require people to scan their physical ID to register to vote. In those states, Vote.org would typically direct people to a local library, in line with the nonprofit’s commitment to finding free or low-cost ways to register, but libraries have been closed and are opening piecemeal by state, or even by town.
In addition to digital outreach, Vote.org typically advertises on college campuses, but some schools will be closed or conducting their fall semester virtually, Rose said. Now the organization has to be smarter about how it reaches young people and people of color, its target demos, because they are often ignored by partisan campaigns, she said
“We’re tactic-agnostic,” she said. “We’re testing a lot of new strategies.”
Vote.org was the beta customer for a digital outdoor ad offering launched this month by the out-of-home (OOH) advertising company AdQuick.
Over the past month, some commercial brands have taken brand safety precautions by dynamically targeting outdoor screens in cities during the day and going dark at night during protests, said AdQuick co-founder and CEO Matt O’Connor. Vote.org took advantage of relatively low rates to get its name and message out to protestors and in social media or news imagery, capturing moments when people are politically fired up and more likely to register, he said.
Vote.org is also evaluating programmatic ad tech vendors.
Vote.org doesn't invest in TV, since it focuses on low-cost channels with direct results, she said. But as TV ads become more affordable and targetable, Vote.org could, for instance, adjust its messaging by state to account for specific registration rules.
For its work with Vote.org, O’Connor said AdQuick had to build geotargeting capabilities by political district. “That’s not something you’d have if you don’t work with political groups, because what we found is congressional districts don’t align with how maps or people are organized.”
But there are opportunities right now for major nonprofits and political groups to build their name and fulfill their mandate, despite much uncertainty, Rose said. Vote.org has registered 1 million new voters so far this year.
“In this landscape, where the only constant is change, we’re getting much better at putting up an ad quickly and being nimble where we couldn’t before,” she said.
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Facebook’s balancing act
Facebook has been buffeted to and fro by candidates and political groups on both sides of the aisle.
Some say Facebook is biased against conservatives. Others complain it’s too acquiescent to President Trump.
Liberals are leading the charge to break up Facebook and calling for the platform to crack down on political ads. But Democrats need to use the ad platform more urgently than Republicans do.
The main reason Facebook hasn’t been able to satisfy critics, despite major changes to its ad platform and news feed policies since 2016, is that there still isn’t a clear understanding of the nuances between organic and paid media, said one Democratic digital media consultant.
Last week, Facebook announced a new policy that will allow users in the United States to turn off all electoral and political issue ads for Facebook and Instagram. That will make it harder for campaigns to reach supporters and donors, but it doesn’t restrain political accounts or misinformation. The Russian 2016 electoral influence campaign involved relatively little paid media, because it gained organic exposure when people clicked, shared and commented on posts.
Facebook responded by dramatically limiting the amount of overall news content people see in their feed, though the algorithm still favors organic metrics.
Kevin Roose, a columnist for The New York Times, keeps a running tab on the best-performing news posts on Facebook, based on data by the Facebook-owned analytics company CrowdTangle. Top stories consistently come from Fox News, President Trump’s own account, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, the evangelical conservative Franklin Graham and right-wing groups including Blue Lives Matter and ForAmerica. Occasionally, legit news such as CNN or a liberal account with a large Facebook following – Bernie Sanders, for example – will crack the top 10.
“We’re trying to work with Facebook on these things, but the people we talk to in Ads are not the ones making decisions with the ripple effects we’re talking about,” said one digital media buyer for a major liberal super PAC.
Facebook’s recent announcement that American users can block all political or issue ads could exacerbate the problem.
“Facebook just dialed the incentives for extreme rhetoric by candidates on Facebook up to 11,” tweeted Eric Wilson, chief digital officer of the Republican super PAC America Rising. “If big segments of your electorate can no longer be reached via paid, candidates will have to focus on ‘going viral.’”
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• The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee raised a combined $80.8 million in May, outpacing for the first time President Trump and the Republican National Committee, which disclosed a $74 million haul last month. ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising infrastructure service, flexed its muscles even more this month, processing $250 million in donations to progressive candidates and causes, with the biggest recipients being bail funds and racial justice efforts.
• Both campaigns are putting more of their money to use on advertising as the race enters the “trench warfare” general election mode. “We’re playing offense, buying programs like daytime Fox News and NASCAR to get in front of a large volume of Obama/Trump voters,” wrote Patrick Bonsignore, Joe Biden’s director of paid media, in a memo. Bonsignore said the Biden campaign also shifted more money to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to take advantage of viewership spikes during the pandemic.