AdExchanger Politics: The Coronavirus Factor

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How will coronavirus affect US politics?

Beyond the direct impact on the economy, COVID-19 is upending political activity this year.

In the presidential primary, political parties and candidates are, like everyone else, trying to figure out what their jobs will look like for the next two or three months.

COVID-19 is a relative gain for former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, said one data operative for the Democratic National Committee.

Bernie Sanders said Sunday during the Democratic debate – the first in the cycle to be held without an audience – that his entire campaign team is working from home for the next couple of weeks at least.

Biden’s team is also working remotely, and neither candidate will be glad-handing supporters at campaign events any time soon. But the Sanders campaign relies on a network of people knocking on doors and person-to-person grassroots canvassing, said the DNC exec. Sanders also draws much larger rallies, another advantage that’s evaporated.

As far as the census, it is still going to happen. The Constitution mandates that every 10 years, states reapportion taxes and representatives based on a population count.

This year’s census was already complicated. The Supreme Court last year blocked the Trump administration’s plan to include a citizenship question in the census, since forcing people to declare their citizenship status discourages participation from noncitizens, who are supposed to be counted. New York sued the administration for allegedly slashing funds needed by the Census Bureau to reach “hard-to-count” communities, notably immigrants and Spanish speakers.

The census is also dealing with negative home ownership trends (fewer young people buying homes) and the degradation of landline phone access, which make it more difficult to reach residents. Apple’s latest iOS labels some census outreach as a “Spam Risk.”

But this public health crisis could be the straw that breaks the census’s back (or more like a falling piano and anvil combo). The census earmarked $100 million for a program to train reps to use computer tablets to collect submissions in highly trafficked areas such as transit stations and grocery stores. That was supposed to begin this month and is now delayed until April at the earliest. The census door-knocking campaigns are also delayed.

* * *

The political ad tech portfolio

What do the candidates’ ad tech vendor choices say about their campaign strategy and where we are in the evolution of data-driven political advertising?

Well, a lot.

Many campaigns opt for the big platforms, according to publisher ad tech data company Adomik, which tracks spending across the Comscore site network. Elizabeth Warren’s former primary campaign and Bernie Sanders’ campaign use the Google platform as their primary DSP and SSP, while the Trump camp uses Google’s Display & Video 360 DSP with the Xandr SSP.

But the market is still opening up for nonpartisan, independent ad tech.

The campaigns for Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg used The Trade Desk as their primary DSP. And Warren and Sanders both used The Trade Desk as their Google alternative.

Rubicon Project is the preferred SSP for Joe Biden’s campaign, and was for Buttigieg as well. Rubicon showed up in Adomik’s data for every campaign except for Warren’s, which channeled its spend through Google’s platform.

Not to mention the surprise winner of the ad tech primary is … drum roll, please … MediaMath, the go-to DSP for the Biden campaign, now the heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Biden’s team also leveraged Roku’s dataxu DSP.

However, the true winner may be The Trade Desk, the programmatic buying vehicle for Michael Bloomberg’s profligate campaign. Bloomberg spent more than every other political advertiser combined so far this year, and he is the only candidate to remain an active advertiser after exiting the race, said Adomik VP of US sales and strategic partnerships Francois de Laigue. (Bloomberg pledged to continue aggressively spending to support Biden and the Democratic Party.)

Many ad tech companies have seen surprisingly strong spend from political advertisers this year, not necessarily because they’ve won over candidates, but because Google and Facebook made it impossible to use only those two platforms for digital advertising.

They still earn the lion’s share of political ads online, but Google and Facebook each banned candidates and advocacy orgs from microtargeting users based on voter files or political preference.

That means candidates that want to run targeted digital campaigns with voter data must broaden their ad tech footprint.

“We are not a free social media platform where bad actors are easily engaged and can at times spread misinformation,” The Trade Desk CEO Jeff Green said during the company’s earnings call last month. “That, combined with our vetting processes, microtargeting limits and our commitment to objectivity, mean that we're rapidly becoming a preferred platform for major political campaigns.

Campaign leadership probably still doesn’t know the names “The Trade Desk” or “Rubicon,” said one digital media buyer for the former Warren campaign. But unlike previous cycles, sophisticated political advertisers understand that they can’t just use Google and Facebook, considering the new targeting restrictions. She said that publicly traded “category winners” such as The Trade Desk, Rubicon and LiveRamp have picked up traction as reliable alternatives.

And other kinds of ad tech vendors are seeing an upswing from Washington, DC.

Viewability and fraud detection companies Integral Ad Science, Moat, DoubleVerify and WhiteOps have stepped up their political outreach and are receiving inbound interest.

DMP testing was all the rage in 2016, said a media buyer at the conservative agency National Media. This year, campaigns and political agencies are actively considering viewability vendors.

“It goes back to Google and Facebook’s microtargeting prohibitions,” said a liberal media agency exec. “If targeted campaigns are being restricted more and more to the open web, then we need a much clearer idea of the inventory we’re getting there.”

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

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