Joe Rospars was the principal digital strategist for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential bids and he is now the CEO of Blue State Digital, a strategy and technology firm. So it’s not hard to guess who he is voting for—and who he is working with—in 2016.
But Rospars also has ample insight into successfully marketing candidates—including why people rather than technology are key in political campaigns, as well as how ad spends will change in 2020 and beyond—so we virtually sat down with him to get his take on the raucous 2016 election, as well as what he sees on the political horizon.
The Drum: Let’s start with the basics. Blue State Digital: What’s the elevator pitch and what is your role?
Rospars: Blue State Digital is a creative agency and tech company rolled into one. We help advocacy groups, nonprofits and brands build better relationships with the people who matter most to them—supporters, donors, customers. I’m the founder and CEO, which means being directly in control of almost nothing but feeling an anxious responsibility for pretty much everything.
The Drum: Just for the sake of clarity: Are you working with any campaigns in the 2016 election?
Rospars: Separate BSD teams did work for both Hillary and Bernie in the primary, and we’re working to support the Democratic nominee and the rest of the ticket across several engagements with multiple entities.
The Drum: You were Obama’s chief digital strategist in 2008 and 2012. From a marketing perspective, what do you think were the keys to Obama victories in those elections? I think Obama goes down in history as the first candidate to really embrace digital to connect with voters—was that it? And from that can we intuit digital is again THE key in 2016? And/or is that oversimplifying?
Rospars: Every election is unique—a reflection of the country and of the candidates. But in 2008 and again in 2012 we had a candidate who is an organizer at heart and we were able to build a campaign that was focused on getting as many people as possible participating in the election in as many ways as they could. Of course that’s through digital, but the key is the focus on getting ordinary people involved and giving them as much responsibility and ownership of the campaign as possible.
The Drum: On a somewhat related note: Digital changes so quickly—so the landscape is quite different from 2012. In other words, I would expect the bar for what each candidate has to do in the digital sphere has gone way, way up. Do you have a sense of what the keys to success in digital marketing are in the 2016 election? I.e., is it in a new technology/platform? Snapchat? Livestreaming? Something else entirely? And do you think the campaigns have a firm grasp of these new technologies/platforms or are they experimenting and seeing what works and adjusting accordingly?
Rospars: The digital landscape and realm of possibility is shifting all the time, but what determines the success of a campaign or really any organization that’s focused on mobilizing a lot of people is getting out of its own way. If you’ve got the kernel of something people are excited about, clarity of message, potency of organization, ability to raise donations in small amounts, [it all depends] on having your principals and staff dedicated to the experience of the end user, the supporter at the heart of your mission. Too many leaders and staff, even those with the best of intentions and tireless commitment to the cause, nevertheless proceed with a center of gravity around themselves, rather than a service orientation towards the members or supporters.
The Drum: Are you seeing any candidates embrace lessons derived from the campaigns you worked on? If so, in what capacity?
Rospars: Both the Hillary and Bernie campaigns benefited from not just the lessons, but the talent and technology that we developed over the course of the two Obama efforts in 2008 and 2012. Hillary has an incredible team that has integrated the offline and online aspects of campaigning, and Bernie proved a campaign that few people gave a chance could achieve scale and get tons of people involved in a meaningful way.
The Drum: How much of a 2016 candidate’s budget should be devoted to digital, percentage-wise? I live in something of a digital bubble, so TV ads and phone calls seem a bit antiquated, but they’re still in use and therefore still presumably effective? Are campaign budgets sort of slowly shifting away from phone/TV to digital? Or do you expect phone/TV to remain an effective way to reach voters for the foreseeable future?
Rospars: At the presidential level, we’re still in an “all of the above” era. But I think the emerging question for the next campaigns will not be TV vs. digital, but rather a different evaluation of how you spend resources. Whether it’s through paid media, content creation, a field organization or investing in technology, a smart campaign manager in the 2020s is going [to] prefer to spend their first dollar on the most targeted, individually addressable communications delivered by the messenger most trusted by the voter. Every subsequent dollar spent degrades in efficiency on one or both of those measures.
The Drum: How is marketing a candidate to voters different from marketing a product to consumers? How is it similar?
Rospars: It used to be that political campaigns looked to the corporate sector for lessons in polish, packaging and clever obfuscation in order to make the sale. Increasingly, brands are looking to the political and charity sector for lessons in linking a sense of authenticity and broader, shared purpose to their marketing—and that’s a good thing.
The Drum: This is perhaps an unconventional election. What has surprised you most?
Rospars: I’m most surprised by the collapse of the Republican Party as an organized entity in control of its coalition and process. For my entire lifetime, the Republican presidential nomination has gone to the person whose “turn” it was. Republicans have been able to keep the nativist fringe of their party in line through a careful balancing act between them and the corporatist and religious fundamentalist interests in their base. But that balance is crumbling here (and in right-leaning parties in Europe as well). And it’s not clear how it gets put back together.
The Drum: One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of hand-wringing among journalists who are dismayed by Trump’s ability to dominate the news cycle and get lots of free press. But, according to data from Moz, this attention doesn’t necessarily translate to votes. I.e., there’s an inverse relationship between share of search and the likelihood of victory. In your experience, is there some truth to that? And/or are there other lessons to be learned here…?
Rospars: It didn’t take that many votes to win the Republican primary in a crowded field of flawed candidates with mostly weak organizations. So Trump’s asymmetric advantage in the media was able to dwarf the others. But in a national election where organization and turnout in specific places relevant to the electoral math matters, it’s a big gamble to rely solely on that advantage.
The Drum: I haven’t actually finished the last season of House of Cards, but I’ve heard about Pollyhop and some real-life fear about using search engines to manipulate voter sentiment and/or election results. How realistic is this?
Rospars: The big tech companies seem to only belatedly understand themselves as in algorithmic control of news and political content—making them, effectively, media companies. In this election cycle, they’re grappling with first-order challenges like keeping fake news articles out of your feed. It’s also worth noting that Trump has put the publisher of a right-wing media site in charge of his campaign. For more mainstream platforms, though, the critical element of trust is fragile and they’re all hoping to get it right.
The Drum: If you were working with each campaign—Johnson included—what would you advise in terms of messaging, tools, etc.?
Rospars: Can’t speak to this because we work with one of them (the right one!).
The Drum: Do you have a sense of which candidate will win? Are you comfortable sharing that?
Rospars: Trump is not qualified or prepared to be president. Thankfully for the world, he’s also not qualified or prepared to run a successful general election campaign for president.
The Drum: How do you think we’ll look back at this election from a marketing perspective? What impact do you think this will have on future campaigns?
Rospars: I think perhaps more than others in history, how we view this election will be colored by what happens after it’s over.
The Drum: My editor and I have been known to quote Liz Lemon from time to time, so I have to ask about the time you were on 30 Rock!
Rospars: In the 100th episode, I’m in the studio audience of the show-within-the-show. We get poisoned.
This article originally appeared in The Drum on September 19, 2016.