Why the Democratic Primary Won’t Be Decided on Twitter

Right out of the gate this year, the Democratic primary field is being largely defined by issues. This already proves wrong the moderate conventional wisdom that 2020 would be solely about beating Donald Trump, with voters eager to unify behind a noncontroversial candidate. Vox reports that there’s no frontrunner yet. “56 percent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, when asked whom they would support for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, didn’t offer up any name at all. In other words, the field right now appears to be pretty wide open.” Nobody, not even Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris, cracked 10 percent in this week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Instead, the loudest and most energetic conversations are about Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor or where various candidates land on Medicare-for-All and wealth taxes; and even particular candidates’ reliance on industries like big pharma or private insurers. These questions resonate deeply with primary voters — and may be the key to turnout in the general election too.

There seems to be a growing awareness that a Democratic victory in 2020’s presidential election will require not only running an unproblematic candidate, but also energizing new voters on the issues. Now, as I’ll talk about more below, there’s going to be an abundance of new voters to energize. So campaigns are asking themselves how to attract and motivate them.

Social media is the easy answer, but not necessarily the right one. Republicans will certainly use it. We’ve learned a lot about social media manipulation in the last couple of years, both of the “legitimate” type, where a President who is only “popular” in the most compartmentalized of ways is able to manipulate Twitter to his advantage; and of the more nefarious kind, where entities outside the United States easily deployed bots and designed fake news and events (of uncertain effect, but undoubtedly trying to get an effect).

But looking at the two sets of numbers — number of new voters and number of users on key social media platforms — an interesting picture emerges. Consider Twitter, since it played such a decisive role in Trump’s 2016 campaign. Twitter is not growing. The graph here shows how the platform peaked in 2014 and hasn’t grown meaningfully since then. In the last reported quarter of 2018, monthly active users in the U.S. decreased by a million.

The new voters are not flocking to social media. Many of them were on it already, but that just means that they are unlikely to be motivated by social media to move beyond the issues or topics that are already moving them.

Which leads to the challenging conclusion that what will really matter in the Democratic primaries — and, I think, the general election too, ultimately — is getting people invested and on board in realspace. Social media can be a catalyst or event-planning facilitator for that, but it’s not going to swing contests by itself. Ultimately, campaigns will need raw voter data and good verification and data append resources.

Campaigns will also need to go outside the lines of just checking voter records and data. Of course this has always been true. But one reason it’s even more true now is that there’s been a radical expansion of democratic participation since 2016. Florida voters approved felon voter rehabilitation in 2018. Other states are following suit either legislatively or through referendum. Even the new Democratically-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is on board. This is amazing, by the way —we must restore the Voting Rights Act and go much further to make the franchise universal. As a practical matter, moving these new voters will mean reaching beyond voter records, obviously, because these folks haven’t voted in a while or maybe ever. New files will be have to built based on interest or on other kinds of data. Smart voter organizing groups like Latino Victory are stepping up their voter participation game for 2020. “In 2018, Latino Victory endorsed 58 candidates, 43 of whom won their elections,” writes Rafael Bernal at The Hill. Using consumer records to fill holes in voter files is also a valid option.

So here’s the perfect storm: Twitter has peaked. Other platforms are hemorrhaging users. But voter registration and participation is rapidly expanding. It’s a perfect storm of both high turnout and issue-focused specificity. Role Call’s Nathan Gonzales says: “the bases of both parties should be at a fever pitch because of Trump and a potentially progressive Democratic nominee, with issues such as the Supreme Court, immigration, health care, and the economy at the forefront of people’s minds. And independent voters may feel pressure, after four years, to take a stance for or against a polarizing president.”

Managing public narratives is always going to be important. But campaigns need to manage — in a rapidly expanding field of new voters — volunteer recruiting and participation. More people voting means more people available to do all the things we need to do besides voting to make our candidates win.