Trumped in Virginia: Why the Democrats are still struggling online

Editor's Note: I'm glad I only staked £50 on this and not the reputation of the company. We learned a couple of useful things here though - 

1. Don't use single source data to make predictions (or gamble) in politics

2. Don't look at the ratings for the top of the ticket to predict a race. Local candidates and issues determine the result

Everything you'll read below about a swing away from Northam (and a disastrous shift in messaging to pander to the media) was borne out by results, but in the end Northam benefitted from a strong ticket below him and a clear message on the issue that really mattered - healthcare. Also, wasn't it great to see his defeated primary opponent Tom Perriello campaign so hard for him? What a class act - he really messed up my bet! 

Last Thursday morning I bet £50 on Republican Ed Gillespie to beat Democratic candidate Ralph Northam in the Virginia gubernatorial race this Tuesday. That may not sound like a lot of money, but for a start-up founder it is the food budget for a week. It’s also the largest individual bet I’ve ever placed.

My bet slip

My bet slip


I hope I am going to lose that money. I probably will - the bookies think so, and Northam is in a strong position. Also, in terms of mitigating the impact of Trump and protecting healthcare for millions of Americans, it’s a very important race. I will be delighted if Northam can pull off a win. But I doubt it. The data tells a pretty grim story of a collapsing campaign and it also highlights two tactical disadvantages that need fixing, otherwise next year will be much, much worse for Democrats.

One of the best things about building a machine learning project is that you get to do a lot of grunt work, which is to say learning and reporting and building stuff in person. There is no point coding an algorithm unless it tells you something useful and different and no way to code it unless you understand every step. So, for the last month, I have been manually trawling social media (with the help of a few machine learning tools) to understand the campaigns of Northam and Gillespie via thousands of posts by the campaigns and their supporters and detractors – and millions of reactions to those posts.

The picture is pretty clear; the Republican party in Virginia has a bigger, better online base. This needn’t be critical. For instance, Obama won with a better online base than his opponent, but Bernie lost. But one thing is certain; when the news cycle finally turns its attention to a particular race after months of campaigning, candidates need online support ready to amplify their position. And right now, Republicans understand this space far better than Democrats.

Social media share of voice (last 6 weeks)

Social media share of voice (last 6 weeks)


Northam started this race with more money, and more support. If you live in Virginia and use healthcare, or you have children, you would be crazy not to vote for him. He has strong positions on healthcare, education, planned parenthood and gun control. He is a better candidate and Gillespie is both dull and dishonest. Despite all this, it looks a lot like Northam is going to lose. This all feels familiar to Democrats after Hillary’s remarkable loss last year and the root causes are the same.

There’s one element that digital strategy can do very little about which is clarity and consistency. On some issues digital conversation and behaviour shows voters don’t know what Northam stands for and his opponents have relentlessly exploited that. Voters also had no reason to turn out for Hillary other than the fact that it was her turn. But I digress. As we’ll see, this consistent purpose or authenticity is important online but I want to consider some basic organisational tactics that the Democrats need to understand if they want to avoid a mauling in the 2018 mid-terms.

Speaking of those mid-terms, it’s worth noting that despite Gillespie’s use of racist and incendiary tactics from the Trump playbook, the White House is no fan of him and has done as little as they can to support him. If Fox News, Brietbart and their thousands of networked supporters get involved in races next year, the problems described below will be more pronounced. In the event, the alt-right world only really paid attention to this race from the moment on Wednesday night when Sen. Barbara Favola described Republicans as ‘evil’.

Turning to the online arena, there are two tactics used by Gillespie’s team that have helped him dominate social media – and especially Facebook – throughout the campaign.


GOP Tactic 1: Talk smack in public, recruit in private

Both candidates put their policies online and built social pages for Twitter and Facebook. But only Gillespie has pumped thousands of dollars into sharing his policy points to private individuals on Facebook. (The ones that make sense – not his two-paragraph health policy!) He has also maintained a constant stream of paid social telling voters about his campaign and attacking Northam, all focused on individuals. Overwhelmingly, Republicans have followed this playbook which was first developed (by the same teams) across the pond for Brexit and then perfected for the Trump campaign. If your core arguments are hard to make, then your best tactic is to make provocative or glib statements on public social channels like Twitter – and appeal to the emotions and fears of certain demographics in private, i.e. via Facebook.

As an aside, the effectiveness of this tactic has put Northam into a classic spin. By failing to unify Virginia Democrats and sympathisers and reacting to the barbs of the Gillespie campaign, he has allowed himself to be put in the position of seeming completely inconsistent on jobs (when he isn’t) and being accused of racism by a candidate who has sought to exacerbate racial divisions – following the Fairfax, Latino’s for Victory, Sanctuary City trifecta. This failure to rise above sniping and concentrate on a core message is mirrored across the political web and has left Northam under attack from both right and left.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?


GOP Tactic 2: Build your ‘long tail’

With Fox and Brietbart and their juvenile equivalents on 4Chan seemingly uninterested in this race, Northam had a big ‘Press’ advantage heading into the contest, with support from both national titles like The Washington Post and local stalwarts such as The Virginia Pilot. But of course, media traction relies on much more than broadsheets and tabloids today and it’s really important to have a wider network of bloggers and influencers picking up your stories and running with them. Gillespie’s campaign team have done a good job here.

Gillespie has a wider support base

Gillespie has a wider support base


Over the past three months, both their top supporters (with 50 or more shares per article) and their long tail supporter networks (getting only a handful of shares per piece) are much more diverse – with double the number of authors. This ‘long tail’ is hugely important for the impact of your campaign on social, ensuring that you have a wider total reach and that those people interested in the campaign get your message from multiple difference sources. Gillespie’s ‘long tail’ is seemingly the result of good old fashioned press release management and networking. But, as I’ve mentioned, the picture will be very different next year when Democrats can expect the ‘long tail’ of GOP supporters to include massive activist networks, Russian trolls and click farmers drawn by the money Trump generates.


Gillespie is by no means in league with the Trump camp. But by being well organised with a wide network his team have been able to capitalise on the controversies that Northam has come up against in the past few days, creating a huge negative swing against Northam online at just the wrong moment.

Green line shows public opinion (on social media) favouring Ed Gillespie

Green line shows public opinion (on social media) favouring Ed Gillespie


The good news for Democrats and for people like Signify who want to promote honesty and decency online, is that both of these tactics can be negated by a well organised online presence and a clear message. There are hundreds of online tactics that promote honesty and positivity at the same time as promoting a candidate and, in fact, positive campaigns can work even better than negative ones.

Hopefully Northam wins on Tuesday. But if he doesn’t, the silver lining could be that Democrats stop ignoring social media. It is an incredibly important part of public discourse and voter decision making. And, social media is not somewhere where the trolls and bots have taken over and reasonable voices cannot win. In fact, social media is an incredibly vibrant and progressive space with an unparalleled reach – somewhere Democrats should win every time.

And of course, the other silver lining will be me taking my wife out for dinner for the first time in way too long.

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