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Election 2024 Interview: Teddy Goff
The first in an occasional series of interviews with people with something to say about what campaigns should do in 2024.
Welcome back to Full Disclosure.
Today’s issue is the first in an occasional series of interviews with people who have an insight into what political campaigns should do in the run up to 2024.
This one is with Teddy Goff, who served as Digital Director for Barack Obama in 2012 and as Chief Digital Strategist for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Today, he is a Partner and Co-Founder at Precision Strategies. (And by way of full disclosure, Sam from Who Targets Me and Teddy worked together between 2008-12)
For context, British campaigns have taken notes from American campaigns for decades. But over the last 15 years or so, it’s been particularly true for the digital aspects of campaigns, with advisors, agencies, technologists and consultants making the trip across the Atlantic to share their methods and experience from the previous American electoral cycle. This reached a high watermark when Obama’s strategist, David Axelrod (for Ed Miliband’s Labour) faced off against Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina (for David Cameron’s Tories) in 2015 (cue lots of Spidermen pointing at each other meme).
The question is, how much can this continue to be the case given the two countries’ vast disparity in campaign resources? And does anything much currently translate from American politics, where the degree of polarisation feels far greater than is currently the case in the UK?
As you’ll see from Teddy’s responses below, he thinks campaigns in 2024 should act quite differently to those of the last 10-15 years…
The conversation below was lightly edited for clarity.
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Who Targets Me: Hi Teddy. Thanks for taking the time to talk. To jump right in with the big question - what do campaigns need to think about for 2024?
Teddy Goff: Well, as I see it, there are three ‘mega-sized’ dynamics I would be thinking about if I were setting up a campaign today. Now, fortunately, I'm not actually setting up campaigns any more, so I can raise the questions without having great answers, and hope people on the left, wherever they are, do come up with them.
The first mega-dynamic is TikTok. I don't know how big it is in the UK, but in the US it’s massive. The problem is that our political class is dominated by people who are, at the very youngest, in their late 30s and it goes right up to people in their 80s. That means it’s just not on their radar to the extent it ought to be.
But the importance of this thing cannot be overstated. As with Twitter, at least before it melted down, it has ripple effects into the broader culture. You might hear ideas and not even know that you've been influenced by something that came to you through virality on TikTok. It just cannot be overstated. I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like the power it has among people under 30 or 35. The early days of Facebook or Instagram didn’t hold a candle to the power of TikTok at this moment.
But I don’t think politics is anywhere on understanding that, perhaps because you can only try and influence it fairly narrowly. Democrats I’ve talked to, trying to get play on TikTok, say to me “we need to have accounts on there.” And yes, that’s true for sure, but you’ve got people spending eight hours a day on there and, across all that time, they’ll spend 45 seconds with your content every couple of days - and even then only if you’re good and lucky.
So the left needs to think about how it goes broad, which means creating relationships with influencers. But even that isn’t big enough. If you have relationships with 10 or 100 or 1000 of them, you’re still only talking about a drop in the bucket. I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but it’s about trying to infiltrate the entire thing at scale. Perhaps it’s training, teaching a whole generation of young left-leaning people that, if they don’t want to lose the country to fascists, they need to commit to being foot soldiers online..
WTM: So people need to create a ton of content?
TG: Yes, but not just that - they need to comment on it, boost it and share it too.
The problem is that there's this nihilism in the US right now. I don't know if you feel that in Britain, but I've been thinking a lot about the difference in the tone of the current debt ceiling debate versus the same debate in 2011. Back then, the country nearly ground to a halt. People were stressed about it. It dominated dinner table conversations beyond that narrow circle of people who read the New York Times. And now the attitude seems to be “we’ve seen this movie before”, in part because between Trump and climate change and school shootings and everything else… people just shrug.
So, for me, really playing on TikTok means trying to retrain a young generation of people who think the country is worth fighting for, who think “our side is actually good” and “the other side is really bad and could have a lot of power very quickly”. They've all got to get engaged in the task of winning the information war against these people.
This is different to before. It’s not about getting a paying job as an organiser on the Biden campaign. It’s about spending time trying to dismantle information campaigns.
WTM: What’s the second mega-trend as you see it?
TG: It’s AI. I was never gung ho about crypto or wearables or AR or VR. Some of these are important, and will continue to be important at the level of entertainment, but we are going to have to get our heads around AI. I don’t know what it’s going to do to the world yet, but generative AI feels like the biggest thing since social media.
WTM: Really? Because, for campaigns at least, we’ve written how, at least in the short term there’s a number of considerations that might hold them back from using it. Not least because our thought was that the value of getting AI to write your campaign emails or design your ads wouldn’t actually be that high. At best they’d be 75% as good as the human version, they’d still need editing and loading and checklisting and all the rest.
TG: In the short term yes, you may be right, but I’ve already had some pretty incredible experiences where these tools have saved me time, and where what it’s done has been well-structured and added ideas I wouldn’t have otherwise had. It wasn’t perfect, but it did save a lot of time. So perhaps things that took eight hours now take one, and that’s going to make a huge difference to the amount of people a campaign needs, the money it raises, what it can do and so on. I think we will start seeing the impact of that in 2024 - smaller campaigns doing the same amount of work with less, bigger ones using AI to explore more ideas.
WTM: And what’s the third?
TG: This could be less important in Britain because there’s slightly less of a culture of “let's all get up on Saturday and go knock on doors”, but I do think the days of door knocking are basically over in the US.
There is still some role for organising around GOTV and voter registration, but I certainly think the default volunteer action shouldn’t be knocking on doors. It doesn't work. It's inefficient. It's not a pleasant experience. And sadly, in America, there's a chance you’ll get shot doing it. Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard people worrying about that in a way it wouldn’t have occurred to them a few years ago.
In the end this reaches back to my argument about TikTok. In the past, there was a generation of people who would get on a bus and go to Philly and knock on doors. They need to understand there’s not much point to doing that. This was always the case, but now it feels like we’re in a war against fascists who are full of energy and playing for keeps. They don’t get tired the way we do, because they’re the insurgents and we’re playing defence. So we need to find a way to channel whatever energy we have and use that to engage with dinner table conversations and social media posts and lots of little actions that replace the Saturday trip to a swing state. No one wants to do this work, but it has to be done.
Tactically, if I were running the Biden campaign, I’d say people should get a call from an organiser and have it explained to them that we are in an information war against a bunch of psychos. To win it, we need you to sign up for the following WhatsApp groups and DM threads and put your personal Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok accounts to work for us. If you feel awkward being the person in your friend group who’s always posting about politics, we need you to get over it. I think this would be far more effective than spending time going door to door.
WTM: The position in the UK feels quite different, as the right-of-centre party has been in power for a long time. In response, Labour is trying to appear Biden-esque - change yes, but stable change. It’s all quite calm, even compared to a year ago. That “get on the internet and win the argument” mindset you mention doesn’t seem to exist within Labour’s support in 2023. It existed for a bit during Corbyn’s time as leader, but had mostly dissipated by 2019. Labour doesn’t actually need the same energy as Blair had in 1997 or that Corbyn almost had in 2017. Sunak isn’t very Trumpy, so he’s harder to get motivated against in that way. The closest thing the UK has to Trump is Nigel Farage and he’s never won anything. There’s no British equivalent to Trump going back on Twitter and insulting everyone and wrestling with Elon Musk while the media goes mad for it, to the extent that Biden can’t get a word in edgeways, leading to a Trump being re-elected. Even after Brexit and Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the UK has such a different dynamic.
TG: One important element about trying to deal with this in the US is doing our best to train journalists who inadvertently launder right-wing narratives into the mainstream. They don’t work for us, obviously, but can we find a way to stop that happening so damn often? I don’t think Trump will be quite as captivating as he was in 2016, but there’s still a very good chance his playbook ends up with him winning next year.
WTM: To finish, let’s just talk about the flipside of all this - you say there are three mega-trends for people to try and latch onto, but ‘strategy’ is a choice about what to do and what not to do. The point of almost any campaigning activity feels like it’s to make a difference at the margin. If you win 60/40, it’s got very little to do with a campaign’s performance. If you win 51-49, everyone gets a claim on what won - field, TV ads, digital campaigns, all of it. If Biden loses by a couple of points, everyone’s going to go mad because of the choices a campaign made. You’re obviously saying the Democrats or Labour should run different campaigns to those of 2012 or 2016, 2017, 2019 or 2020, but what should they explicitly avoid doing?
TG: I think it’s still related to the trends. I think I’d avoid investing in field operations. That’s just nostalgia at this point. Perhaps people think it represents what our politics ought to be about, but it’s expensive and takes up a lot of time. I’d also say that, despite all the money in American politics - which sounds a lot, but it’s really the sort of money that Jeff Bezos makes or loses in a day when the Amazon stock price moves - none of it really matters. I don’t think the amount that gets spent on TV ads matters. Digital ads matter a bit.
But as always, the overall things that matter are the big stuff - message and candidate quality, the performance of the economy and so on.
WTM: And with that, our half hour is up. Thanks for chatting about this Teddy. Best of luck for 2024.
Our second interview should arrive late this week or early next, so keep an eye out for that. If you think there’s someone we should try and speak to let us know (perhaps it’s you?). In particular though, we’d love to speak with candidates who will be running for Parliament next year.
Until next time.
Team Full Disclosure / Who Targets Me
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