By Kevin Roose, The New York Times. March 21, 2019.
In 2016, after a torrent of targeted Facebook ads helped lift President Trump to a surprise victory, it seemed like the dawn of a new age of digital-first campaigning.
But three years later, online advertising by political campaigns is still largely an afterthought, according to a new report by Tech for Campaigns, a group of technology workers who volunteer to help Democratic candidates with digital outreach.
On average, campaigns in the 2018 midterm election cycle spent no more than 5 percent of their overall media budgets on digital advertising, according to the group’s report, which was compiled using political ad reports issued by Facebook and Google and publicly available spending data.
Television ads and direct-mail campaigns remained the biggest expenses for campaigns, accounting for about half of all media spending, the group said.
According to the report, Democrats outspent Republicans on digital ads in 2018, with the median Democratic House campaign spending 5 cents of every media dollar on digital ads, compared with 4 cents for every dollar spent by the median Republican campaign.
In all, the group estimates, campaigns and outside groups spent $623 million on digital advertising before the midterm elections, with $284 million going toward Facebook ads and $90 million going to Google ads.
Political campaigns’ hesitation contrasts sharply with the private sector’s approach to digital advertising, where corporate ad budgets have shifted quickly from traditional media to digital platforms. Companies in the United States will spend an estimated 54 cents of every advertising dollar online this year, according to the research firm eMarketer.
Despite being a political lightning rod for candidates from both parties, Facebook and the company’s other services, like Instagram and Messenger, remain the favored platform for campaigns.
“You have to be on Facebook and Instagram right now,” said Jessica Alter, a founder of Tech for Campaigns. “There’s no other choice. That’s where people are.”
The group’s analysis led to several other notable findings. It showed that vertically oriented “selfie” videos shot by candidates in a loose, conversational style performed better on social media than slicker, more expensive videos adapted from TV commercials. On average, homespun videos cost 20 percent less to run on Facebook than more professional footage, even before factoring in production costs. (Facebook’s ad platform runs on an auction system that rewards more engaging ads by lowering their cost of distribution.)
The group also found that negative video ads were 24 percent more efficient than positive ads for generating “ad recall” on Facebook, a measurement that estimates an ad’s effectiveness.
And although campaigns often use social media to target younger voters, the group’s analysis found that older voters were much more likely to engage with digital ads. According to the group’s data, Facebook users 65 and older clicked on campaign ads roughly three times as often as younger users.
Google appears to be the platform of choice for Republican campaigns and outside groups, which spent 48 percent of their digital advertising budgets on the platform in the four months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, compared with just 25 percent for Democrats, according to the report. The gap narrowed since 2016, when state and federal Republican campaigns spent three times as much as Democratic campaigns on Google ads.
Several Democrats running for president, including former Representative Beto O’Rourke, have poured large sums of money into digital advertising. But when it comes to buying digital ads, President Trump is still far ahead.
Even as Mr. Trump attacks tech companies, saying they are politically biased against conservatives, his campaign has spent roughly $3.5 million on Facebook ads, and another $1 million on Google ads since December, according to an analysis by the Democratic consulting firm Bully Pulpit Interactive that was released this week.
Mr. Trump’s spending on digital ads, which was first reported by Axios, is nearly double the amount spent by all of his Democratic challengers combined.