As COVID-19 forces campaigns to go digital, Florida Democrats lag behind GOP

“The Democrats truly can’t keep up with the strength and size of our campaign” said Emma Vaughn, the Republican National Committee’s Florida Press Secretary.
That device in his hands is the new campaign trail.
That device in his hands is the new campaign trail. [ NAM Y. HUH | AP ]
Published May 24, 2020

When Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa logs on to play “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” on his Nintendo Switch, he sees opportunity.

He looks around his island, dubbed Demócratas — “Democrats” in Spanish — and envisions planting a customized Team Joe flag for all to see. He said the party is in the process of creating a brief on voting to send to fellow players (or villagers, in Animal Crossing speak) and is working on getting a virtual vote-by-mail form to plant at the village airport and memo board.

“Once we accepted this cycle was going to be very different and made peace that we can’t knock on every door, the creative juices just started flowing,” he said Friday.

When the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down in-person campaign operations for the 2020 election in March, staff and volunteers to the left and the right had to quickly become strategic, nimble and most of all, 100% digital.

Democrats are in the process of beefing up their digital staff by hiring 12 organizers, two for Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitch and Twitter.

They are hosting digital block parties with DJs, “phone bank” bingo games and wine nights for volunteers. On Pinterest, the party is targeting the wide swath of suburban, female Joe Biden supporters by partnering with designers to create guides on how to design a workspace fit for volunteering.

Catching up with Trump

But Democrats have a long way to go to catch up with Republicans, who have logged over 6.2 million calls to Florida voters since they switched to a virtual campaign March 12, compared to Democrats’ 1.6 million.

“The Democrats truly can’t keep up with the strength and size of our campaign” said Emma Vaughn, the Republican National Committee’s Florida Press Secretary.

The digital infrastructure was largely already in place, she noted, including “Trump Talk,” a program which allows volunteers to pull from the RNC’s voter files to contact voters in Florida and throughout the country. The RNC uses over 3,000 different data points on an individual voter to create an original script that populates for each call, allowing users to collect badges when they hit certain milestones, creating a game-like experience.

The Trump Victory Leadership Initiative, the RNC’s “signature training program,” has been in use since 2018, and has hosted 1,285 virtual educational sessions to train new armies of volunteers on how to make phone calls and use social media. The training is localized, so volunteers get familiar with their peers as well as field staff without having to meet in person.

“We truly are the campaign of the 21st century,” Vaughn said.

She noted that Biden’s recent Florida digital rally that was notably plagued by technological issues has been a lesson for everyone involved in 2020 races.

Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida and founder of digital marketing firm Microtargeted Media, said behind the scenes, the state party has been training each county on how to best utilize email lists and Facebook to reach voters more effectively from a distance.

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He said he’s been surprised to see even smaller, down ballot campaigns embrace new technology to communicate with voters.

“We’re just crushing it,” Ziegler said. “I have been begging people to recognize the power of digital for 15 years. I think it was a quick awakening foe some. It’s a fundamental tool.”

He said in the last few years, he has seen a transition in philosophy that he believes is largely influenced by Donald Trump’s campaign manager, website designer Brad Parscale, who is broadly credited with bringing the 2016 campaign into the digital era.

“We have the Trump campaign headed up by a digital guy. That really sets the tone for everyone below that level,” Ziegler said. “Digital and data is where our focus is. That’s where Biden has struggled.”

Pivoting to digital

While novelties like Animal Crossing campaigns and TikTok organizing are in the works, the Democrats have been engaging in more traditional tools as well, like phone banking and what they call “virtual door knocking” to encourage voters to sign up for mail ballots.

The state party has also been stepping up its more traditional social media presence, and now tops the Florida GOP when it comes to both Twitter and Facebook followers. The party is buying more data “than it ever has before,” Peñalosa said, and is taking notes from Trump’s Parscale when it comes to thinking digitally.

He noted that in 2016, the Trump campaign found different types of people to lift up, since he did not have a traditional voter base at first. The Trump campaign found interesting and engaged people to create their own content and promote it on behalf of the party in a democratic way.

The party’s FDP University offers virtual classes on voter protection, misinformation and cyber technology for registered Democrats, and on Saturdays at 4 p.m., “Florida Dems Live” invites people to participate in games, videos and icebreaker-type activities.

Peñalosa said while the party still has support in traditional voices like Democratic members of Congress, its new initiatives are “lifting up newer, younger voices,” which is a lesson he said they have taken from the Trump campaign.

“Brad Parscale doesn’t have a seat at the table. He is the table,” Peñalosa said. “And he’s digital forward. We are trying to move in that direction.”

There are challenges in the digital space that the party has had to face, Peñalosa admitted.

The party has pivoted toward spending energy getting voters to receive mail-in ballots, because registering voters has become a difficult task without being able to show up to places like naturalization ceremonies, farmer’s markets and Department of Motor Vehicles offices.

So far, the party has registered just 70,000 of its 200,000 voter goal but has, in turn, seen an increase in volunteerism.

While it may be difficult to register people to vote, Democrats are encouraging volunteers to make calls to collect data while checking in on how people are doing amid this crisis. Peñalosa said the party has increased volunteers at a rate of nearly 2,000 per month, and that the party’s virtual campaign offices that have popped up statewide offer thousands of people the opportunity to connect in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a brick and mortar building.

To date, there are 18,000 active volunteers working with the party, and 20,000 Democrats registered to vote by mail since the party closed down in-person efforts in March.

“As a person who has been a long-time organizer, it is really a breath of fresh air,” Peñalosa said.

Lessons from the past

Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who led Barack Obama’s effort in Florida as state director in 2008 and as a senior adviser in 2012, said while social media and new strategies can help a campaign, it isn’t everything.

Schale, who now serves as the executive director of “Unite the Country,” a Super PAC supportive of Biden, said he thinks there is often misplaced credit given to Trump’s social media presence versus former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s when people discuss the 2016 election. He said 2020 should be no different.

His philosophy when it comes to campaigns is that organizers should act more like customer service representatives than professional fund raisers. Volunteers must make voters feel ownership of the candidate, so that they bring in other members of the community to build up the organizing network.

“I think for me, you take a step back, the goal isn’t who can build the coolest mousetrap, it’s what campaign can meet more people where they are,” he said. “The message of beating Donald Trump is more important to Democrats than a cool app.”

Ziegler, who worked on past campaigns as well, echoed a lot of the same sentiments Schale did. He said the whole goal of politics is to reach out to voters, and that campaigns have to meet voters where they are to be successful.

“Whether it’s social programs or going to a gun show … you have to get that in front of the people,” he said. “Right now, people are at home.”

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