3 Key Lessons That Digital Campaigners Can Learn From Beto O’Rourke
Hint: They aren’t the lessons you think.
Yesterday, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke ended his campaign for the U.S. Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Now, it’s time for digital campaigners to reflect on his back-to-back losses and ask some hard questions.
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Here are three key takeaways for digital campaigners in a post-Beto world:
Lesson #1: Voters Care About “Why” You’re Running
To understand why people in Texas rallied around Beto’s campaign—and why people in Iowa and New Hampshire did not—digital campaigners should look first to his narrative.
In his Texas Senate race, Beto offered a simple, strong, and compelling reason to run: Texas deserves better. You can see it on his homepage as far back as April 2017. It was a clear and concise message, and moreover, he delivered it with conviction. In every video, every speech, every everything, you could feel that Beto O’Rourke believed he was running for Senate because someone had to do it.
In contrast, his presidential campaign felt forced. As soon as his Senate campaign ended, the “Draft Beto movement” began, with headlines in the newspaper like “Celebs react to midterms with cheers, tears and calls for Beto O'Rourke to run for president” (USA Today) and “Seems Like Everyone Wants Beto O’Rourke to Run for President” (New York Magazine). But while Beto himself wouldn’t rule out a presidential campaign, he didn't immediately embrace the idea, either. If it wasn’t entirely clear that he believed he should run for president, why should anyone else believe it?
Where in Texas he had a clear and compelling narrative, in the presidential race he always seemed to struggle to answer the most basic question: “Why do you want to be president?” The issue was further complicated by his repeated refusal to run again in Texas’ 2020 U.S. Senate race. After two years spent building a movement to turn Texas “blue,” he now seemed to think the job was beneath him.
The 2018 campaign felt like Beto for Texas. The 2020 campaign felt like Democrats for Beto. That difference matters.
Lesson #2: List Size Does Not Guarantee Success
Put simply, Beto O’Rourke’s digital team built a massive, national email list of Democratic activists and donors. People from every state donated to his senate campaign in record numbers, and consultants and pundits alike half-hoped half-expected for that level of activity to carry over seamlessly to his presidential campaign. But it didn’t.
An email list is not a singular object that can be retained, transferred, and leveraged at will. It’s a collection of individuals, each of whom has, at one or more particular moments, chosen to engage with your campaign or cause. And those individuals' support level and interest in your campaign change over time.
When people gave to Beto for Texas (2018), they were likely doing so because they were motivated by his campaign’s narrative, and by the energy and excitement of a unique moment in political history. But by 2020, Beto for Texas donors were also Bernie Sanders donors, Elizabeth Warren donors, Pete Buttigieg donors, etc. The moment had passed, the narrative had changed, and the fundraising potential of Beto’s email list proved to be massively diminished.
In 2018, Beto for Texas claimed more than 800,000 individual donors. By August 2019, Beto for America had earned just 188,000.Source: NBC News & The New York Times
Beto’s email list may ultimately prove invaluable in support of the eventual Democratic nominee against President Trump, where the cause will be unifying and the stakes high. But in a crowded Democratic presidential primary, Beto’s digital team faced the hard truth: the 2018 Beto for Texas list wasn’t a list of Beto O’Rourke supporters, it was a list of Democrats.
Lesson #3: Technology Is Not a Strategy
Digital campaigners get excited about tools. We’re technology people, and we can’t always resist the lure of cleverness and innovation. But it’s important to not to forget that the technology we choose is a matter of tactics, not strategy and that using “cool” tools doesn’t necessarily yield success. In fact, overengineering can hinder success.
From an outsider perspective, without access to internal campaign data, Beto’s team seems to have fallen into this trap with their event management platform.
During the 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate, Beto’s technology team built a beautiful, custom solution for managing the thousands of in-person grassroots events that became a hallmark of his campaign. During the 2020 campaign, they repurposed that technology as shown below.
In the meantime, the larger Democratic Party ecosystem had learned that Mobilize.us—a shared events management platform—had become the most efficient and effective way to organize offline campaign events.
Mobilize’s platform is being used on the ground by essentially all of the Democrats’ leading candidates, meaning that they’re all benefitting from the network effects that come from a shared platform: a familiar user experience for supporters, accidental event discovery through shared event calendars, and the offloading of platform maintenance and support.
While cool, on-brand and undoubtedly cleverly built, Beto’s custom events platform likely hindered their ability to organize on the ground in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Beto O’Rourke ran an earnest campaign led by an experienced and talented staff, and this breakdown is not meant to criticize any of their intentions or hard work. Rather, my hope is that other digital campaigners, now and in the future, can benefit from their experience and learn these three key lessons.
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