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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A Race to Bridge the Analog Divide in US Politics

Just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, seven American flags dance in the wind on a bright and unseasonably warm day to “Macho Man.” There are no Village People here, just a hundred or so voters, some excited dogs, a few politicians, and a stage.

Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin is the headliner, here to rev up the same GOP base that sent him into the governor’s mansion last year. His 2 percent margin of victory still smarts Democrats, even as it fills Republicans with macho-man bravado.

“We learned how to win elections in Virginia. We understand how to do this. We understand how to come together and make our voices heard. We understand how to get the vote out,” Youngkin tells the cheering crowd. “We understand every head needs a hat, every bumper needs a sticker, every yard needs a sign. By the way, we need to make phone calls. We need to knock on doors. We need to get people out to vote on Tuesday.”

That’s right. In this digitized era—where spending records are obliterated every two years despite pocketbook woes topping the chart of voter concerns—political campaigns still see traditional retail politics as their best way to connect with voters. Nothing beats attending local events and kissing babies. But attempts to digitize retail politics come in all different shapes and life rafts.

“We are in an era where everything you need to do organically needs to be amplified, and everything you do on digital needs to be amplified,” says Danny Laub, a partner at national ad agency Poolhouse. “So you have all this momentum, and it’s how you encapsulate this both by putting money behind it and creating the same energy online.”

Laub’s firm cut $1.5 million worth of ads for Youngkin’s campaign last year, and he says the key is aligning our digital and physical realities, at least in the minds of voters.

“There were clearly people coming out to rallies, to meet and greets, to town halls or events. The campaign did a really good job of being able to amplify that, whether that’s with digital videos from the campaign, pictures, uploading and quickly getting photos out—you know, amplifying that energy,” Laub says. “And I think the key was that a lot of people had to understand winning was possible in Virginia last year.”

Hope, as some call it. Dreams? It feels great when your team wins, but the ecstasy of playing a part in the victory is indescribable.

Being on the losing team sucks though. Just ask most Americans. Since 2007, more than 70 percent of Americans annually report not trusting their government, according to Pew Research. In 1964, that was flipped, as 77 percent of Americans thought the government had their backs.

In 2020, brothers Mike Baumwoll—after six years at Twitter—and Dave Baumwoll—after serving as a prosecutor turned prison reform advocate in New York City—combined their respective abilities and founded Rep’d, a site intended to replace trolls with constituents. Social media is often noisy, which is why their site enables users to directly question their own politicians about their own pressing local issues.

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“While I see and understand the power of social media and how you can communicate messages and engage in some way, shape, or form, those platforms aren’t designed for sort of a personalized interaction with the voter,” Mike Baumwoll tells WIRED. “It was specifically designed to allow and empower voters and give them a microphone to ask a question.”

When a politician replies to a question that was upvoted on Rep’d, their response is blasted to all the other users who voted. The campaign can then send that response out to all their other platforms, such as newsletters, Twitter, Facebook, or press releases.

This election cycle, the company’s tech is being deployed in campaigns in Michigan, Wyoming, Austin, and Colorado. Before becoming director of communications and digital for Colorado Democrats, Megan Burns did marketing for wellness, beauty, and fashion brands in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Political marketing lags a few seasons behind her previous digs, shall we say.

Rep’d has been a bright spot to her though. She likens it to being one-third Cameo, one-third Facebook, and one-third Reddit. Campaigns that adopt the technology—which can be as simple as including an “Ask” button on their candidate’s website—get a direct link to voters that other campaigns don’t have.

“That feeling of inclusivity and being in the in crowd, I mean, that’s clout. That’s how you get people to buy in and love your brand,” Burns says. “My two marketing goals are to educate people and empower them to feel confident to ask their elected officials questions, right? Hold people accountable and make their voices heard, because I feel so many people are disillusioned with the system.”

The erosion of Americans’ trust goes deeper than government institutions. These days, the media has also lost the public’s trust. A full 38 percent of Americans now tell Gallup they have “no faith” in the media. By removing journalists from the conversation and connecting voters directly with their own politicians, Rep’d hopes that faith will slowly be renewed in politics.

“There’s no possible distortion of a politician’s message because they are telling it to you directly and responding to your question directly,” says Mark Friese, the vice president of business development at Rep’d. “So we think it kind of shortens the distance between the politician and the voter, or the politician and the constituent. And we think it can definitely play a bigger role in increasing trust and transparency.”

Trust and transparency are lofty goals, especially when many voters don’t even know what’s on their ballot or where to vote. That’s where services like BallotReady come in.

BallotReady has you covered, which you may have heard on Spotify, Snapchat, and even Tinder—all brands they’ve partnered with to get their nonpartisan message out. It alerts you to vote, and even directs users to the nearest polling place.

Importantly, in this first election since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, they also help voters sift through the quagmire of down-ticket state and local races—for comptrollers, commissioners—which this year includes judges who may decide your local reproductive rights.

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“They know who they want to vote for at the top of the ticket, but then, often, they don’t even know what’s going to be on their ballot, let alone that it’s going to be more than, like, two candidates in a given race. They don’t know information about what the offices even do, let alone who’s running,” says BallotReady cofounder and CEO Alex Niemczewski. “It can be a lot of information, so it can be overwhelming for people.”

The group also helps explain the ballot measures on each ballot, according to your zip code. Once you look up all the candidates and issues that will appear on your ballot, you save it and can print it out or open the site while voting. Think of it as a cheat sheet for the confusing business of politics.

Today, for example, voters in five states are being asked to directly weigh in on reproductive rights. In three of them—California (Prop. 1), Michigan (Prop. 3), and Vermont (Prop. 5)—the measures guaranteeing abortion as a state right are fairly straightforward, even if they have confusing names on the ballots.

Over in Kentucky, voters are being asked whether to ban abortion rights in the state constitution, so supporters of abortion rights are being told to vote “No” on Amendment 2. In Montana, voters are being asked whether to declare an embryo or fetus a legal person with rights if a doctor finds a heartbeat after an attempted abortion (LR-131 on the ballot)—a complex issue to consider inside the voting booth.

“We know a lot of people either don’t complete their ballot—they do what’s called ballot roll-off, and only cast their vote in the first race they see—or they guess,” Niemczewski says. “I have yet to meet someone who has not admitted to guessing at some point when they vote. So what we do is make it easy to be informed about what’s going to be on your ballot, and we try to make it easy to feel confident in the vote you’re going to cast.”

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