AdExchanger Politics: Super Tuesday Ad Strategies

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Super Tuesday is the presidential primary’s most important day, with 14 states, a third of delegates up for grabs, and a predictable winnowing of the field.

As we’ve already seen. Billionaire Tom Steyer dropped out Saturday after a disappointing finish in South Carolina. Pete Buttigieg withdrew Sunday, as his odds of winning evaporated. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar quit Monday and endorsed Joe Biden. Following Tuesday’s results, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg may face existential questions.

The order in which candidates drop out changes the race. Sen. Warren has a large pool of progressive voters that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ strategists consider potential supporters; Bloomberg folding could consolidate votes for Joe Biden, who’s expected to benefit from Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s exits.

AdExchanger examined Super Tuesday advertising strategies for Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders raised $46.5 million in February, for a total of $167 million. That war chest helped Sanders buy the only comprehensive Super Tuesday media plan, aside from self-funded billionaires.

Sanders spent $900,000 on Google and Facebook ads in California in 2020. Steyer’s and Bloomberg’s campaigns spent $1.6 million and $5.9 million, respectively. The next closest candidate is Elizabeth Warren, with $186,000 spent in California. The same dynamic is true in the next largest Super Tuesday states, Texas and North Carolina.

Sanders is in an enviable position. Candidates need 15% of statewide votes to receive state delegates, or 15% in districts to win district-level delegates. In California, he has a big polling lead with 34.7%, and Biden and Warren are polling just above 15% statewide. Bloomberg is not currently polling above the 15% threshold. In Texas, Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg are polling above 15%.Sanders spent $5.3 million on TV ads in California and $2.9 million in Texas last month. He was the only non-billionaire candidate on the air in either state in February. And now he has a chance to keep other candidates below 15% in each state and win the primary’s two largest delegate stashes.


When Bloomberg entered the race late last year, he blanketed Super Tuesday states with ads.

It’s easy (and true) to say the Bloomberg campaign is pushing the limits of political paid media. But there is a strategy beyond “spend, spend, spend.”

Bloomberg is targeting suburban and right-leaning districts, often in expensive media markets. In Duluth, Minn., which has one TV market and five delegates, Bloomberg dropped $900,000, while no other candidate topped $20,000. Bloomberg can pay the premium in Los Angeles and San Diego – he spent more than $30 million on TV in those two cities alone – to reach suburbs such as Orange County that flipped to Democrats in 2018.


Biden picked up a much-needed win in the South Carolina primary on Saturday –and much-needed cash, raising $10 million over the weekend. But it may not be enough.

Biden spent less online in February than any other candidate. The campaign reserved its first Super Tuesday TV spots last week, the last major candidate on air in those states, and made only one six-figure buy between Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Biden is focusing on southern states, where dollars go further and African-Americans are a higher share of the electorate. He won 64% of African-American voters in South Carolina.

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Can Politicians And The Ad Industry Learn To Speak The Same Language?

There is a huge education gap between media executives and the legislators and regulators behind new privacy laws.

The FTC hosted fact-finding hearings on data-driven advertising last year. The Senate and House held hearings. And at campaign law conferences, digital media operators, lawyers and state commissioners are trying to learn from each other.

But the results are discouraging.

“If people in ad tech heard the questions from policy teams or regulators, they’d be appalled,” said one industry exec.

Government officials often don’t understand the distinctions between publishers and vendors, he said. Even some elected politicians don’t understand basic First Amendment issues for content posted on sites or social media.

“There’s a not-unjustified perception that the folks writing political advertising laws are regulating areas they don’t understand,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the advocacy group Campaign Legal Center.

The education gap runs both ways, though.

Some DSPs default to restrictive state laws and don’t understand disclosure laws, according to political agency executives. DSPs sometimes request excessive information for TV or think the law requires disclosures for every kind of ad and mobile message.

“The DSP will say it needs this info to comply with the law. So I’ll ask, ‘What law?’” said one political buyer. “And it’s clear their policy is an arbitrary baseline, not adapted to the law.”

Industry players are skittish about new laws but should want legislation, said Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division of the Maryland state board of elections.

“It’s when you apply old laws to new environments that you get these absurd results,” he said. For example, Google and Facebook suspended state political ads in Washington state because they can’t meet the disclosure requirements of a 1970s campaign finance law.

Maryland was one of the first states to enact an online advertising law after Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. News companies such as The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun challenged the law on the grounds that it infringed their free speech and added an onerous expense. They won in US circuit court, and now news publishers are exempt.

Maryland legislators are motivated by Russian disinformation campaigns in 2015 and 2016 that heavily targeted Baltimore.

Fischer believes the online advertising industry needs to understand the perspective of legislators and policy teams.

“It might create some hurdles and headaches for companies in digital advertising,” he said. “But it’s well worth it when you think about the vulnerabilities and stakes.”

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• How much does Gmail filtering affect US politics? The Markup signed up for dozens of political email lists to see how they’re channeled to spam, the “promotional” tab or the inbox. “The fact that Gmail has so much control over our democracy and what happens and who raises money is frightening,” said Kenneth Pennington, partner at the progressive digital media agency Middle Seat.

• Democrats are fractious and worried about rending their coalition. “Every ounce of progress that you and I won together is on the line,” wrote President Obama Thursday in a fundraising plea for the Democratic Unity Fund launched last year. “I will wholeheartedly support whichever candidate wins our party’s nomination,” he pledged in an email two hours later. A silver lining: Thursday was the DNC’s biggest fundraising day of the cycle.

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