Digital Advertising Upends Formula For How Political Parties Pick Winners And Losers

AdExchanger Politics” is a recurring feature that tracks developments in politics and digital advertising. 

Today’s column is written by Ray Kingman, CEO at Semcasting.

Political parties and their leadership pick winners and losers – when they legislate and, especially, in how they allocate resources to candidates running for office.

The idea of picking winners and losers through spending isn’t without precedent. On the eve of the 2016 election, the conventional wisdom was that Donald Trump would lose badly. Three weeks before Election Day, Politico reported that the Republican National Committee had spent zero dollars on television ads.

In the 2018 midterms, the formula for deciding winners and losers could be based on a different dynamic due to the polarization within the parties and the ways in which digital communication is democratizing the campaign process for more candidates.

With as many as four or five “parties” seemingly in play in this election cycle, how do party loyalty and the candidate’s flavor of ideology affect fundraising and on-the-ground support from the national parties?

For example, the challenge for the GOP seeking to retain control of the House and Senate is determining which GOP “party” they are going to back – the traditional Republican establishment, Tea Party Freedom Caucus members or the Trump-ites? On the Democrat side, will national support go toward traditional Democrats, the Bernie Bros or those on the far left?

Traditionally, the national parties and Congressional leadership direct a significant portion of fundraising and determine the races worth contesting. These groups historically throw resources behind candidates that allow them to buy prime-time television advertising and, more importantly, fully fund get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts in local districts.

However, many candidates in 2018 are taking the Citizen’s United ruling to heart by raising significant war chests and building campaign infrastructures independent of their party.

The GOP outraised the Democrats by a wide margin in 2017, but that advantage has all but disappeared. A record number of emergent state, local and congressional candidates are running for the first time on the Democratic Party side. Many younger candidates and female candidates are stepping up and breaking records for enthusiasm and fundraising.

In the second fundraising quarter of 2018, 50 of these House Democratic candidates outraised Republican incumbents, with 21 of them raising more than $1 million. In open races with no incumbent, the Democratic candidates have outraised the GOP in 25 of the 30 races.

Part of a 2018 candidate’s go-it-alone strategy is based on the fact that voters are more inclined to consume information digitally. Some 43% of adults get their news online, and that trend is accelerating, according to a 2017 Pew Research study.

Through social, display and mobile devices, candidates have more refined tools for reaching the voters they want to reach. Instead of wasting half of their campaign dollars on TV to reach everyone in a designated market area or ZIP code, candidates have increasingly bought into digital. Borrell Associates forecasts digital at 22% of political spend for 2018. At an estimated $1.9 billion, this is a 2,539% increase in digital since 2014, while broadcast television spend is forecast at $3.3 billion, a drop of 30% for the same period.

Increased polarization is a driving factor in pushing campaign managers to be very precise about their ad buys. They limit their targeting to the constituents that they align with and who they feel are persuadable on specific issues. Programmatic targeting at the individual voter level helps candidates reach the intended audience with display, social and especially streaming video on mobile and connected TV.

While spending on social media is actually forecast to decline slightly from 2016 because of Facebook’s controversies, mobile and streaming video are expected to more than make up for it. Compared to the same quarter last year, the audience for video delivered over the internet is experiencing astronomical growth across movies, episodic TV shows and linear television. EMarketer forecasts that 22 million people will have cut the cord on cable, satellite or telco TV service – up 62% from 16.7 million in 2016.

A threefold increase in mobile and connected TV streaming services also aligns with major increases in engagement from urban and millennial voters – a traditional stronghold of Democrats.

While institutional and PAC monies from both sides will come into play in the final two months to support the party favorites that have the best chance of winning, those bets will be placed to protect parties that most voters see as divided.

Fortunately, candidates who have built their own infrastructure and established a robust following will have the resources to drive their own messaging on key local issues and GOTV in their districts. Persuasion and GOTV efforts for them will continue at record levels – in no small part because of their engagement with digital media on the devices that their voters have come to trust.

Follow Semcasting (@Semcasting) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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