Fighting Death by 1,000 Cuts with Targeted Paid Media

by Leo Wallach

Trump’s tweets, scandals, missteps, and Rose Garden announcements get the big headlines, but the administration’s work below the radar is the equivalent of death by 1,000 cuts to policies that support fairness, opportunity and sustainability. Whether it’s repealing consumer financial protections, rolling back student loan protections, halting scientific research, exempting officials from ethics rules, there are numerous actions that are harmful and unpopular but drop from public discourse soon after they happen.

This is particularly true with regard to our environment. The withdrawal from the Paris Accord rightfully got major headlines, but the administration’s assault on a host of common-sense protections is an ongoing threat to clean water, breathable air, and protected lands.

The good news: just as there is a death by 1,000 cuts strategy to undermine good policy, there is a death by 1,000 cuts strategy to hold power accountable. Using digital and highly targeted mail or ads on streaming media, each policy misstep can be leveraged into an effective communications campaign.

Cut funding for the Great Lakes? We can tell 85,000 independents in Michigan who fish or boat.

Revive the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site? 125,000 moderates in the Las Vegas region can be targeted online.

Cuts to public lands management? Tens of thousand of Independents and Republicans who camp in Colorado should hear about it.

We can find people who have winter inversions in their town and talk about air rules, or people who live near superfund sites and discuss funding for restoration. Then we can use modeling and voter databases to hone the targets, and digital ad feedback and testing to refine the content.

The numbers of people in each bucket are small — especially compared to the impact of the policies — but so, in the end, are the margins of victory in competitive congressional races and in swing states for presidential races. This isn’t election work, but it is creating a drumbeat of accountability among people who drive the electoral consequences that all of us have to live with.

Does this sound expensive? It’s not. The cost is real, but not overwhelming given the stakes. Here’s some back of the envelope math: In Michigan, 1 percent of the presidential vote is about 50,000 people. Reaching that number of people with a sustained digital media campaign, might cost $150,000 to $200,000. Tens and hundreds of thousands can make a difference in any state or district, if targeted properly.

Somebody could look at the chessboard and get this done on a national level, or each group can just use this as motivation to make a dent on their particular issue. But it’s empowering to know that carefully targeted actions can add up.

There is a growing list of the administration’s actions and goals that are not just harmful but unpopular: repealing clean water rules, slashing budgets for national parks, overruling scientists to allow a potentially dangerous pesticide, canceling requirements for reporting methane emissions, attacking fuel efficiency standards, the list goes on. The approach we describe is helpful to ensure these are not forgotten just because they have not won the outrage sweepstakes.

In fact, when it comes to exacting a political price, separating these from the broader cacophony can be helpful. A wavering Republican or Independent who voted for Trump might feel defensive about generalized or emotional attacks on Trump. Even so, raising personal, targeted issues closer to home can move the needle.

Leo Wallach is Principal in RALLY’s San Francisco office. He has an extensive background in paid communications, opinion research, ballot measure and candidate campaigns, and issue advocacy.