(Early) lessons for Democrats from 2020, in four points

5 min readNov 5, 2020


Note: All data presented here are based on always-on collection of survey data via Random Device Engagement (RDE) by PredictWise. Full insights are available at signal.predictwise.com

There is no question, these have been ~36+ hours that felt too long to bear. In between the premature punditocracy going to town on 24/7 cable and Twitter, and the more data-driven takes inevitably to come over the next few months, we do believe there are clear lessons for Democrats from this election outcome — (very likely) taking the Presidency, but (very likely) failing to take the Senate, losing seats in the House, and losing key state legislature races relevant for the redistricting fight to come. We lay these open below:

1. Messaging vs. election campaign (or when to message)

The scholarly wisdom is very clear in that campaign effects, i.e. effects of dissemination of paid media within the confounds of an election campaign, are miniscule, especially regarding persuasion. Despite that, Democratic operatives have been pouring an outsize amount of money into key races during the last few weeks of the 2020 cycle — $100M into Florida (mostly) per Bloomberg, for example, for the last 50 days of the cycle alone (against evidence that late-cycle spend on DMA ad buys produces null results), or $200M into the campaigns of Amy McGrath (KY-Senate, lost) and Jamie Harrison (SC-Senate, lost). While it is obviously hard to make a causal connection, return-on-investment (ROI) from this type of election campaign is terrible.

Instead, this money could have been spent on a different sort of campaign: fostering meaningful, continuous, and always-on interactions with voters or prospective voters around the issues they care most about, both via paid media campaigns and via pushing organic content (spearheaded by Republicans recently, especially with an eye toward the young, mostly male gaming community). This messaging effort, perfected by well-oiled and vertically integrated conservative behemoths over the last 20+ years — Koch, Mercer, Murdoch (i.e. Fox News) — would be a fertile undertaking for progressives. On most key dimensions of the political space, especially on economics, voters hold distinctively progressive opinions — when it comes to government-provided vs. private healthcare, for example (for self-identified independents, see chart below). It is worth noting that this favorable progressive bend in public opinion has oftentimes intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, a dynamic that always-on messaging campaigns could have capitalized on, had they existed. To that point, and maybe as a saving grace, a number of progressive ballot propositions passed across the country carried by localized versions of these campaigns, for example the $15 minimum wage referendum in Florida. In short: as opposed to spending billions (with a “B”) of dollars on election campaigns, we should engage people on issues they care about and that look favorable from a progressive point of view, continuously, and repeatedly, to foster emotional attachment to the “brand” of the Democratic Party

Figure 1: public opinion of self-identified Independents on “When it comes to healthcare insurance:”, during 2020

2. Build the technology to distribute always-on messaging campaigns (or how to message)

One argument against this type of always-on messaging campaigns is the related cost of dissemination (building the content is comparatively cheaper). Undoubtedly, cost is high when thinking about traditional media buys. For example, average prices for a thousand eyeballs (during primetime) of broadcast television ads are approaching $40 — not sustainable in perpetuity. In addition, there is virtually no control over who is targeted, besides crude market-level demographics derived from exposure data. Instead, there are new advertising means ensuring more precise reach and meaningful, individual-level metrics. One such means is cell-phone technology: Through device IDs, we can serve paid content to the mobile phones of individuals, and understand how individuals interact with this content, from clicks to conversions, in turn strengthening our targeting analytics. Such processes certainly require investment in data, but are positioned to provide more insights on ROI and lower cost-points, by an order of magnitude at least, than digital alternatives like Facebook (which shares no individual-level exposure data), or traditional cable TV (on which no individual targeting is possible). In short: always-on messaging campaigns require new pathways for content dissemination with better/more meaningful ROI metrics

3. From a demographic to an individual understanding of politics (or whom to message and what to message)

The old world of demographics defining party affiliation is weakening. For years, demographics defined the way we understood vote expectations and political belief systems. If the 2020 election demonstrates one thing: this world of demographic homogeneity is balkanizing. Take Hispanics in Miami-Dade county, FL, who swung heavily toward Trump from 2016: This shift was not just driven by Cubans, but by non-Cuban Hispanics. And, non-Cuban Hispanics in South TX, especially the Rio Grande Valley, underwent a similar trend, while Hispanics in AZ and NV did not (at least as aggressively, though the picture is still not fully clear in Nevada). Similarly, black men likely have moved to become a more diverse voting block than in years past. Granted, all of this is based on early data, but it points to a more complex world in which a simple demographic view on politics becomes less and less meaningful. In turn, this also means that massive individual-level data on issue beliefs, intensity of beliefs, knowledge, value frames, economic anxieties etc. should be collected at large scale, day in day out. In short: always on messaging-campaigns need to be targeted at the individual level, necessitating investment in more individual-level data collection

4. Understanding voters’ cultural frame (or how to frame the message)

As we have pointed out elsewhere, there is a radical disconnect between what experts prescribe and public opinion. A key example we point out over and over again is support of corporal punishment — sharply discouraged by elites (such as the American Pediatric Association), strongly supported by a majority of Americans (see chart below). And, this disconnect on various routines governing daily life in the very least translates into a deep skepticism of elites. Based on our own data, barely above half of Americans trust the opinions of experts over the opinions of ordinary people. While it may be premature to suggest that this disconnect disproportionately manifests in negative views of Democratic (as opposed to Republican) candidates, understanding the cultural frame of (prospective) voters helps lay the foundation for a successful massaging campaign “on the issue”, as outlined in 3). In short: always-on messaging campaigns should be packaged by a cultural frame resonating with voters

Figure 2: public opinion on “Disciplining a child with a good, hard spanking is:during 2020

Regardless of how 2020 will ultimately pan out — as we write this, ballots are still counted across multiple states — the Democratic Party is overdue in rethinking its investment strategy, away from focusing on electioneering, and toward building meaningful continuous, beyond-cycle messaging campaigns that engage voters and leverage the vast dominance of progressive positions in mass public opinion




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