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Hillary Tries Grassroots Budgeting

BY Patrick Ruffini | Friday, April 4 2008

Hillary Clinton's MyPA won't change the way the campaign spends money in Pennyslvania, but it's a neat idea nonetheless. I toyed with something similar at the RNC -- with a shopping cart like interface to sponsor 100 yard signs or 50 door knocks. Because of time constraints, and a hunch that message-driven fundraising e-mails would probably work a bit better than something meta coming down the stretch, it stayed on the drawing board -- but given a bit more time I really would have loved to see it in action.

Here's what the Clinton app looked like this evening:  

What's most revealing about this is not it's real-time fundraising counter (which is a first for Clinton and something I just knocked Obama on). Rather, it's how it reveals the contrast between grassroots supporters' priorities and the campaign's.

In the campaign's sample Pennsylvania budget, $2.5 million of $3.19 million, or 78%, is devoted to TV advertising. In fact, all but $90,000, or 97% is devoted to push advertising in any medium: TV, radio, or online.

Now, MyPA leaves off a few things. There's no line item for political mail. Or phones. Or for staging events that drive media. And it can cost $750,000 to do Election Day in Philly alone, figuring in the usual $100 payments to committeepeople in each of the city's 1,600 precincts.

Still, while supporters have given 60% of their money to television ads, that's significantly less than the 4/5ths the campaign allocated in this mock budget. All the items that involve person-to-person contact (signs in supporters' yards, vans to drive voters to the polls, and door hangers) are doing much better in meeting their goals than the broadcast advertising-driven goals. Though some of this is related to the modest goals set by the campaign, not all of them are. Supporters more readily met the $25,000 vans goal than they did the $15,000 door hanger goal. That's because there's a clearer value proposition: getting a certain vote out of an elderly supporter driven to the polls rather than another incremental touchpoint achieved by a door-hanger. While the Clinton campaign allocated just 3% to grassroots activities, supporters funded it to the tune of 18% of the money raised so far, or six times as much.

Even with the new online revenue stream, campaign spending patterns have been slow to change. New Media Obama ain't exactly skimping on old-school TV ads, and his comparatively large online spend is fueled by an unexpected surge of extra money, not deliberate planning ahead. A lot of this is due to new media's in-built efficiencies. Because it is usually free to communicate, there is a broad understanding that you can't buy the Web. Obama's extraordinary levels of organic online support did not stem from spending more money, and no candidate could hope to match him simply by spending money. 

The conventional wisdom about television isn't quite this subdued, to put it gently. Advertisers have taken the key insight that saturation advertising beats less-than-saturation advertising or no advertising -- particularly in down-ballot races -- and extrapolate it to mean that the more you spend the better -- no matter how much each side is spending and or the fact of two candidates with 100% name recognition. The logic of mutually assured destruction has taken over. Campaign budgeting is not driven by the relative merit of moving votes on TV vs. through grassroots, but by keeping pace with the Joneses on TV. If you are getting killed on TV, as Hillary is right now in Pennsylvania, you do everything possible to keep Obama from reaching a tipping point through paid advertising. Though tipping points usually come from earned not paid media, you can understand why the worry.

Please know that I'm not hating on TV here. I don't know where you'd spend $3 million online in Pennyslvania, and if you did, it would probably be as inefficient as broadcast TV, and from the campaign's perspective, much more unorthodox. TV is a "safe" place to put your money because it's the only medium that can scale to support the money the mega-campaigns are raising. 

Still, I wonder the Hillary data doesn't leave room for Turk's idea of using online volunteers to mobilize offline, and likely elderly, voters. As shown by the readiness of Hillary supporters to fund vans for the elderly, could you do some big online push to dramatically expand the universe of people identified as needing a ride to the polls? Or involve them in absentee chase, another high-value activity that involves banking certain votes? And because this involves buying expensive microtargeting databases, not just lightweight apps in the cloud, it would move the needle on how the bigger campaign pie is being divvied up.