What Can Campaigns in Small Cities Learn from National Campaigning?

Note: This post is an assignment for Nicco Mele’s course – Media, Politics and Power in the Digital Age – at the Kennedy School of Government.

How can the internet be used to promote both political candidates and advocacy campaigns? We’ve recently started focusing on the ways email, online advertising and social media can be harnessed in presidential campaigns.

In a piece by JD Schlough & Co, the authors detail the way Harry Reid’s well financed Senate campaign in Nevada used personal data to target very specific campaign ads online. The reality is that targeting individuals with particular characteristics (age, gender, race, political party and/or geography) requires a large amount of cash from a campaign. Not all campaigns have these resources – particularly campaigns on the state and local level. However, there are some takeaways for local level campaigns in the strategy shared:

“On the Reid campaign, digital was treated like all the other elements of the media tool beltIt’s important to note that most of our (online) persuasion campaigns, even the early ones, were executed in conjunction with traditional media buys. We worked side-by-side with the Reid media team and often layered our online flights on top of broadcast and cable television buys, mirroring their messages and giving them additional frequency by running the ads online. Other times, we layered on top of mail.”

From email to Tumblr, the Internet unquestionably provides more paths for state and local candidates as well as elected officials to communicate their messages to the public. Candidates are also figuring out how to mobilize voters and add sophistication to field organizing through sites like VoteforChange.com and Neighbor to Neighbor. Seth Walls points out that with Neighbor to Neighbor, “you can log onto the system and in a matter of seconds have a list of undecided voters on your street, many of whom you probably know, that you can target for the campaign.”

Regardless of your feelings on publically displaying someone’s voting position (which is a different, but important, conversation to be had), the power of an online platform supplying this information is huge.

However, the amount of time and money dedicated to the many online platforms may vary depending on the geographic reach of the campaign you are running.


Having closely followed the city of Jackson, Mississippi’s recent democratic mayoral run-off, I am tuned in to which of the lessons learned from wide-scale campaigns might apply to our nation’s smaller cities.

Candidates are more likely to have limited resources and capacity in elections in small and mid-sized cities than national platforms. This plays out in some visible signs from two Jackson campaigns in 2013. The website for one of the candidates is still live in its original form even though the election wrapped up in May. Another candidate’s Twitter account attracted only 672 followers out of 126,000 adults over the age of 18 in the city.

While a limited number of potential voters became Twitter followers, one candidate’s twitter feed does supply a look at the diverse ways local candidates are trying to connect with voters in today’s campaigns (see below).

Within a short time period on April 16, Mr. Lee’s campaign posts tweets promoting:

  • A traditional campaign event – Women for Jonathan Lee Sunset Social;
  • A Twitter Town Hall that evening and;
  • A new TV ad that is posted on YouTube for online followers to view.

Screenshot 2013-10-28 22.08.35

This small selection of tweets tells us that both traditional (in-person events and TV ads) and online (Twitter town hall, YouTube ads) efforts to advance the campaign’s message are used interchangeably. It does not show the same messaging coordination that Schlough mentions above, but it does hint at an evolution in local campaigns to use all available resources to advance a message – many of which are online. It also suggests that there is an opportunity for these campaigns to streamline messaging through all of these channels and better use traditional media to push voters toward online content.

Alignment of messaging through many channels – online advertising, email, traditional media, mail and events – is a replicable strategy for organizations with more limited resources. Our MPP Digital course also underscores the importance of reviewing the metrics of your online communication and refining your message – something that, in my experience, state advocacy organizations could unquestionably do better and with greater diligence.

Refining online interaction with invested audiences and expanding the online reach of advocacy organizations is a key goal of my time at HKS. Some of the tactics used by presidential campaigns require more followers and more money than local campaigns have at their disposal, but reviewing their tactics and finding strategies to better message, connect, and mobilize remains critical for organizations in communities across the South.

Until Next Time!

Note: If you are particularly interested in presidential campaign ads and their evolution over time, I would recommend going through the series of videos we analyzed in class here.

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