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The Future of Ads Is Digital — But Not Quite the Present

Some say campaigns are still slow to shift to digital-focused strategies

An iPhone captures then-presidential candidate Donald Trump after the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary debate in early 2016. (Meredith Dake-O’Connor/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An iPhone captures then-presidential candidate Donald Trump after the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary debate in early 2016. (Meredith Dake-O’Connor/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There were plenty of signs that Democrats found success online this election cycle: catchy videos went viral; a burgeoning army of small-dollar donors produced eye-popping fundraising numbers; and voters targeted online showed up at the polls. 

But for some in the party, their digital efforts left much to be desired. Television ads still dominated campaigns, and Republican outside groups outpaced Democrats in digital ad spending. 

 “I actually think it’s a problem for us, and it’s something we’ve got to get on top of going into 2020,” said Betsy Hoover, co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, which fosters Democratic tech startups. 

Party organizations did wage groundbreaking digital ad programs this cycle. But while it may seem like only a matter of time before digital ads start dominating campaigns, digital strategists in both parties say enough barriers exist to keep that from happening anytime soon. 


What’s new

By some estimates, the 2018 election cycle saw an exponential increase in digital campaign spending, especially in online advertising. 

Federal, state and local campaigns spent approximately $2.3 billion online, compared to just $35 million in the 2014 cycle, according to an analysis by the ad tracking firm Borrell Associates.

But that figure was dwarfed by the $7.6 billion spent on broadcast and cable television. 

Facebook and Google continue to dominate digital spending. And in the final months of the midterms, both platforms began disclosing for the first time political spending and ads on their own sites. (Multiple strategists referred to that development as game-changing since it allowed campaigns to monitor what opponents and outside groups were saying online.) 

The party campaign committees focused on House and Senate races also placed a new emphasis on digital activities.

For the first time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which led the successful effort to flip the House, had digital strategists on each of its regional teams. It also launched an in-house digital ad agency for both its coordinated spending and its independent expenditure arm. And staffers monitored and drove social media conversations and generated original digital content.

“It was an investment that paid off three or four hundred times,” DCCC executive director Dan Sena said. At the most recent count, House Democrats had picked up 40 seats, their highest for a midterm election since 1974. 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee advised campaigns to hire digital directors and make early investments online. Those efforts helped Democrats Jacky Rosen and Kyrsten Sinema target key Hispanic voters in their successful campaigns in Nevada and Arizona, respectively. The committee also partnered with MobilizeAmerica, a startup connecting campaigns with volunteers.

Catherine Algeri, who’s led the DSCC’s digital team the last two cycles, sees emerging organizing tools like MobilizeAmerica as the future of online campaigns. She also noted that digital strategy has reached a “maturation point” with digital staffers increasingly taking lead roles.

The DSCC also encouraged campaigns to create content specific to digital platforms, instead of just cutting down a television ad and posting it online.

Some House Democratic hopefuls — such as Wisconsin’s Randy Bryce, Kentucky’s Amy McGrath and Texas’ MJ Hegar —  found fundraising success with that strategy. Online buzz from lengthy biographical videos helped attract donations before the candidates had enough money to launch television ads. (All three came up short in their races last month.)

The two GOP campaign committees, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, did not respond to requests for comment. Facebook listed the NRCC among its top advertisers, with nearly $2.6 million spent. 

From the Archives: We Reviewed Andy Barr, Amy McGrath and Beto O’Rourke’s New Campaign Ads

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Catching up?

Outside groups involved in House and Senate races also stepped up their online efforts with new initiatives. 

The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA launched its first midterm effort with a $50 million campaign focused exclusively online. The 50-plus-person digital team developed original content and tracked analytics in key races. The group also teamed up with House Majority PAC, which supports House Democrats, for a $15 million online effort.  

Republicans have historically dominated when it comes to digital spending, and 2018 was no exception — a Priorities USA analysis found that outside GOP groups still spent more than Democrats this cycle, $115 million to $86 million. But Danielle Butterfield, the group’s director of advertising, said Democrats were closing the gap. 

Both major Republican outside groups involved in congressional races spent big online this cycle. The Senate Leadership Fund spent roughly $22 million, and ensured that each new ad campaign had a digital component as well as one for television and radio. The Congressional Leadership Fund spent 20 percent of its budget online. 

While the partisan digital divide remains a concern for Democrats, the party was able to capitalize on what’s known as acquisition advertising, or ads that implore the viewer to take an action, like sign up to volunteer or make a campaign donation. Small-dollar online donations fueled most of the Democrats’ record-setting fundraising numbers.

Much of that money flowed through ActBlue, a fundraising platform used by most Democratic candidates that streamlined small-dollar donations. (Some Republicans have expressed their own misgivings about not having a similar platform.) 

Michael Duncan, a GOP digital consultant who worked for SLF and CLF, saw the Democratic fundraising boom as a product of the political environment rather than a technological problem. 

“When you’re the party out of power, it’s easier to mobilize that base to give,” he said, adding that Republicans needed a cultural shift to allow for more fundraising cooperation.

Obstacles persist 

Even with the increased online activity, strategists on both sides say campaigns are still slow to adopt digital-focused strategies. 

That’s in part because the rules governing digital ad spending are murky.

The Federal Election Commission most recently held information sessions over the summer on campaign disclaimers on digital ads, but has yet to move forward on any rule-making. Facebook, Google and other platforms, as well as individual states,  have developed their own rules for disclaimers.

The regulatory patchwork presents a challenge for ad makers working to comply with different rules and creates even more uncertainty as new platforms emerge. A handful of strategists said services that allow viewers to watch digital programs on a television, like Roku and Amazon Fire, could be the next frontier for political campaign ads, but the legal ramifications are still unclear.

And despite the new tracking tools from Google and Facebook, online spending is still difficult to gauge. Outside groups have more leeway about whether to disclose online spending and a lot of it “is almost impossible to really track,” said Mike Franz of the Wesleyan Media Project, which studies campaign ads. 

Some digital operatives also point to a cultural resistance to shifting to a more digital-focused strategy.

Veteran consultants could be more reluctant to spend limited campaign funds on new technology. Some strategists also noted that those consultants’ compensation is tied to ad buys, incentivizing them to encourage spending on the more expensive TV airwaves.

“We have a lot of people that are very used to managing mail programs and are used to managing TV programs,” Butterfield of Priorities USA said. “They know where mail and TV fit into a broader strategy. And you’re often trying to get digital to fit in that same box when it’s unique.”

Not everyone agreed that campaigns were slow to adopt online strategies. Rebecca Donatelli, a GOP strategist, said digital strategies were finally becoming “an equal at the table.”

Spending is expected to increase in future campaigns, especially as a large field of Democrats vie for the 2020 presidential nomination. Duncan, the GOP strategist, said a competitive primary would bolster online activity as those candidates build email lists and connect with various groups of base voters.

And it will likely be no different for congressional candidates. 

Sena said the “digital playbook” was expanding to include mobilizing volunteers to contribute to rapid response, allowing supporters to spread campaign messages themselves, and finding new ways to engage with persuadable voters. 

Franz of the Wesleyan Media Project said analysts have been expecting digital spending to dwarf television, since online ads are cheaper and easily targeted at key groups of people.

But that hasn’t happened as yet. 

“I think what it means, at least for the moment, is that everybody’s doing everything,” he said.

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