LOSING A POLITICAL race is a messy thing. As Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign proved, fingers inevitably point in every direction, alternately blaming the candidate, the team, the message, and the opposition’s dirty tactics for the loss. It’s never as simple as any of these explanations. But Jon Ossoff’s defeat Tuesday night by Karen Handel in Georgia’s sixth congressional district contained yet another layer of messiness: it was a local race that, thanks to the immediacy of social media, felt as it if was happening in millions of backyards across the country.
If President Obama was the first presidential candidate to use social media and President Trump was the first to weaponize it, then Ossoff was the first congressional candidate to harness the full force of a national social media campaign for a race that turned out just 241,500 voters. Armed with a catchy hashtag (#VoteYourOssoff), crowdfunding campaigns sponsored by liberal websites like the Daily Kos, and organizations like Swing Left and Flippable funneling donations Ossoff’s way, the 30-year-old first-time candidate raised nearly $24 million, two-thirds of which came from 200,000 small-dollar donors. All in, the race became the most expensive in House history. Knowing little about the man or the place he hoped to represent, donors from liberal bastions of California, New York, and Massachusetts poured money into Ossoff’s campaign and turned him into a household name because, well, the internet made it easy.
“Imagine this special election without social media, without the internet. He would never have raised that much money. Word just wouldn’t have spread, and it would have been too hard to give,” says Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. “It’s an example of technology skewing the traditional rules of politics.”
But in the end, did all that attention ultimately help or hurt Ossoff? The answer: it’s complicated. Since the unlikely rise of Howard Dean back in 2004 when blogging was in its infancy, technology has enabled candidates to connect directly with large audiences–and raise larger sums of money from them. But it also complicates things. When all politics is social, it can sometimes skew public perception of a candidate’s real odds and electability. And when that candidate loses, it can have a morale-crushing effect that extends far beyond the borders of Georgia’s sixth district.
“The internet loves an underdog,” says Mele. “And that’s a blessing because it gives you the resources to actually compete rather than be a footnote, but it’s a curse in that sometimes underdogs are going to be underdogs, and it doesn’t matter how much money you raise or how visible you are.”
Ossoff’s funding, says Catherine Vaughan, co-founder of the Democratic crowdfunding group Flippable, “spiraled to an unsustainable level.” As a congressional candidate, Vaughan says, there are “diminishing marginal returns” to raising gobs of money. The more money you raise, the more expensive you’re going to make the race, prodding your opponent to spend that much more against you.
When Ossoff’s campaign went viral, it dramatically raised the stakes of one tiny election in a district that’s been Republican since longer than Ossoff’s been alive and awoke the sleeping giant of Republican super PACs. Ossoff may have raised $8 million to Handel’s $2.1 million in individual donations, but independent groups including super PACs and the Republican party poured more than $18 million into Handel’s campaign.
“It puts you on your enemy’s radar as a real target, but it also raises expectations at the same time,” says Mele of this social media-fueled visibility. “So you get hit with twice as much of an attack, while your supporters have their expectations inflated.”
What’s more, all this virality is (as viral things often are) rather random. Ossoff became a household name not because he had a particularly radical agenda or a surefire shot at clinching the seat. He was in the right place at the right time. “Whoever it was, this race would have been hotly followed,” says Ravi Gupta, a former staffer for President Obama who now runs the The Arena, a network for young, liberal leaders. “People were craving a scrimmage.”
As the left-leaning internet hung its hopes on Ossoff, Archie Parnell, a candidate for South Carolina’s fifth congressional district raised just $763,000, and lost by just a few percentage points. That fact is already leading groups like Flippable, which raised $168,000 for Ossoff, to wonder whether there might be value in diversifying its portfolio.
“There is risk associated with each race,” Vaughan says. “Putting all your eggs in one basket may not be the most prudent thing.”
Flippable uses algorithms to predict which races are most vulnerable to being flipped from red to blue, based mostly on historical data. But Vaughan says the organization is also looking into whether the sudden visibility of a campaign may, in fact, make it less viable as the campaign continues.
Leaders of the so-called Resistance are reluctant to give up their new national approach to local races, though. As Gupta notes, Republicans have a standing army of billionaires, including the Koch brothers and Trump backer hedge-fund mogul Robert Mercer, ready and willing to pour millions of dollars into any race that looks losable.
“In the end, in order for us to compete, we’re going to have to motivate people all around the country to give a little bit to a lot of races,” Gupta says.
Ossoff may have been the first congressional candidate social media built, but win or lose, he won’t be the last. In fact, he’s already passed the baton to Randy Bryce, an ironworker running to oust House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s first district next fall. In its first 24 hours, Bryce’s campaign has already raised more than $100,000. Perhaps his campaign took off was because of its heartrending first ad. Perhaps it was because of his Twitter handle @IronStache. The web works in mysterious ways.