Trump’s and Sanders’ Digital Victories

27 Jul, 2017


Trump's and Sanders’ Digital Victories

On that October night, when Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton touched gloves for their third presidential debate, Trump’s social media fundraisers did something inconceivable in past presidential campaigns.

Led by Gary Coby, the team ran 175,000 variants of its Facebook ads, enabling it to fine-tune an effort that proved far more successful than even the most experienced Washington observers expected. Coby, who spoke at the Council’s Digital Media and Advocacy Summit in June, called that endlessly tweaked social media ad campaign “A/B testing on steroids.”

‘Speed is Everything’

The previous month, the Trump campaign capitalized on an unexpected opportunity when Clinton characterized half of Trump supporters as “deplorable.” With the campaign’s help, this quote echoed from one side of the Internet to the other, creating what Coby called “a really great day for our fundraising.”

“You have to be able to make decisions on the fly. Speed is everything,” Coby said. “There’s a five to 10 minute window to respond, and we had the go-ahead to do that.”

A speaker on the same panel — Keegan Goudiss, who ran Bernie Sanders’ digital efforts — found an in-flight metaphor to describe what goes on behind the scenes in a social media-driven campaign.

“We were building a plane while we were flying it.”

Both campaigns — Trump’s and Sanders’ — “upended Clinton’s supposedly insurmountable donor base,” according to the Washington Post’s Matea Gold, who moderated the session.

Colby joined Trump’s team fairly late, in the spring of 2016. Goudiss, by contrast, had the benefit of working with Sanders from the early stages of the campaign. But both learned on the job and adjusted to changing circumstances.

Lessons Learned

Political scientists will be studying the 2016 presidential race for decades to come, so “lessons learned” at this point are subject to change. But the speakers offered a number of thought-provoking nuggets.

  • The Trump campaign raised $11 million through text messages alone, working from a list of 700,000 potential donors.
  • There is “no necessary link between the number of click-throughs and an end-goal of raising money,” according to Goudiss.
  • Loyalists can be remarkably fervent. When the Sanders campaign posted a video of a lengthy speech about “democratic socialism” that the candidate delivered at Georgetown University, 12 percent of the people who clicked on the video watched the hour-long speech in its entirety, impressive in a time when candidates are lucky to get eight seconds of anyone’s attention.
  • Email “will be key” to fundraising efforts through 2018 and possibly 2020, Colby predicts, “though other platforms will begin to eat away at email’s advantage.”
  • “For now, you can’t send too many emails,” Goudiss said. “But eventually people will see it as a gimmick, and it won’t work so well. But that probably won’t happen until after 2018.”
  • Direct response advertising “is even more important for smaller organizations than for bigger ones,” according to Goudiss. “So work that list!”

Goudiss is a partner with Revolution Messaging ( Colby can be reached at

Want More Information on Digital Advocacy?

Contact Nick DeSarno, manager of digital and communications practice, Public Affairs Council

Additional Resources

What to Do When Trump Tweets

Public Affairs and Advocacy Writing Workshop