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AdExchanger Politics: Polling Perils, In It To Win It

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Welcome to AdExchanger Politics, our reimagined news round-up in which senior editor James Hercher will track the latest developments in political advertising, augmenting our political marketing commentary and news coverage. Want it by email? Sign up here.

The latest news:

• The Iowa Democratic caucus ended in confusion and delay on Monday night, carrying into Tuesday and Wednesday, after an app commissioned by the state party to tally votes misfired. The face-plant has some news editors questioning the party’s commitment to tech investments, prompting exasperation from some Democratic media pros at the thought that politicians and political spenders would mistake an app design flaw for a digital advertising program.

• Iowa has had its say in the primaries, but it isn’t the only state where residents can vote this week. About 7 million mail-in ballots were sent in California, the nation’s biggest state and where two-thirds of 2018 votes were cast by mail – one overlooked reason why political campaigns pour early resources into the state.

• One interesting thread this primary season: Can another billionaire buy their way into a presidential run? Donald Trump leaned on his own funds to cover his 2016 campaign, but it was still tightly budgeted and ad spend came from fundraising. Michael Bloomberg’s unconstrained campaign doesn’t need a grassroots network, and he is already outspending the rest of the field combined on Facebook, Google and TV. Axios reported he will double TV ad spending in the wake of the Iowa caucus confusion.

• Some campaigns are taking surgical targeting to a new level. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-KY, is running ads in southern Florida calling his challenger a “Trump hater,” Politico reports. That’s a long way from Kentucky but covers Mar-a-Lago, the president’s golf club. It’s now a common practice to geofence the regular haunts of administration officials to beam political messages to people with the president’s ear.

In depth: Polling perils

Political analysts were thrown into a tizzy last week when the Des Moines Register canceled its latest Iowa poll survey, a closely watched final indicator before the first state results are tallied in the primary election.

The poll was canceled because at least one survey taker zoomed in on a tablet to recite questions and cut off Pete Buttigieg’s name from the candidate list. It seems like a minor slip, but it was apparently enough to kibosh the data, since it’s impossible to know how many other callers did the same and the impact on the poll’s margin of error.

The Register’s play-it-safe approach also speaks to an underlying trend in US politics: the degradation of trust in polling.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned [since 2008], it’s not to trust polling,” said Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Obama, speaking last week at AdExchanger’s Industry Preview conference in New York City.


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The perception of polling is distorted in part because the public only sees surveys commissioned by news publishers, universities and partisan groups. These horse-race polls tend to ask basic questions (“Who do you support?”) and generate stories (or even just headlines).

It doesn’t help that the two top nonpartisan political survey research organizations, Gallup and Pew Research, abandoned public tracking polls in 2018.

Landline phone surveys no longer provided a reliable barometer for statewide issues or votes, said Scott Keeter, a senior survey adviser at Pew. Candidates can keep their finger on the pulse by attaching phone numbers to state voter files, he said, but the process doesn’t scale effectively for national survey organizations.

Young voters don’t have landlines, and pollsters can’t rely on smartphone area codes without a current home address. Apple’s latest iOS update also classifies many phone survey callers as a “Spam Risk.”

These unreachable audiences can be found with peer-to-peer texting, online surveys and mobile panels, “though pollsters are working through the legal and regulatory implications of those approaches,” said Chris Wilson, CEO of WPA intelligence, a conservative data and analytics firm.

Private campaign polls have stronger methodologies: They use voter files and CRM data instead of simply asking respondents who they voted for in the previous cycle, as is typical with news polls, Wilson said. True political polls are also more tactical.

“There was always a mix of science and art in polling,” said Danny Franklin, a partner at the liberal agency Bully Pulpit Interactive, and a former pollster for the Obama administration. “Not to say the science is diminishing but the art has been elevated.”

In it to win it

One of the only new features of the political data and advertising landscape in 2020 compared to 2016 is WinRed, a conservative fundraising service emulating ActBlue, a Democratic tool that’s helped raise small-dollar donations.

WinRed generated $101 million in donations in the second half of 2019, its first six months, according to a January disclosure. Like ActBlue, it creates fundraising landing pages to drive email and social traffic and compiles a partywide purchase data set so candidates can raise funds with a click.

WinRed faced pushback because centralized fundraising data could empower Republican primary competitors; it’s outsiders who build fundraising lists from nothing. Some Republican strategists also grumbled that it could enrich digital execs in Trump’s orbit.

But WinRed has won over at least one important politician: Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY. Stefanik initially warned against WinRed but was a WinRed power user by November, raising more than $500,000 during the impeachment hearings.

Republicans lacked a shared fundraising service like WinRed for grassroots development, said Hilary Resta, senior digital strategist at WPA.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke had a huge fundraising war chest – largely filled by out-of-state donors ­– that kept his campaign going during the 2018 Texas Senate race, Resta said.

Democrats also used ActBlue to create joint fundraising pitches. This week, for instance, Sen. Bernie Sanders sent a donation-split message to the email list of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY.

Now House candidates or state parties can raise money by drafting President Trump and setting up a rev-share through WinRed, said Lindsay Jacobs, executive director of the conservative fundraising shop Majority Money.

State parties are also collaborating in the background, she said. The Nevada GOP created impeachment-related merchandise that was used by at least 20 other state parties.

But since multiple state parties had a rev-share agreement through WinRed, the payment processor, each gets audience and purchase data from those sales.

“We needed to develop a response to ActBlue,” Jacobs said. “The idea of being able to use data from across campaigns to rev-share and split donations is more and more important.”

Follow James Hercher (@JamesHercher) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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