This 2016 Number Should Terrify Digital Democrats

Democrats are the party of digital campaigning. Barack Obama taught us that, right? But if it’s true, why did Republicans running for Congress outspend their Democratic opponents four to one on digital advertising?

Actually, the numbers are even worse than that. In a presentation at CampaignTech East earlier this year Andrew Bleeker told the audience that Republican congressional candidates outspent Democrats FORTY to one from January through August of 2016. Democrats only improved to 4:1 in paid digital media in the last couple of months of the campaign, September through Election Day. Congressional Republicans apparently outspent Democrats in total as well, but the digital disparity was far wider than than the difference in other areas of the campaign.

Republicans running for Congress outspent Democrats 4:1 on digital ads September-November 2016. Click To Tweet

This reeks of political malpractice. Yes, campaigns still need to spend money on television ads and field organizing, but it makes no sense for Democrats to ignore digital while pouring money into repetitive (and often poorly targeted) 30-second spots on TV. What’s the marginal value of the 1000th political ad someone mutes during a football game? Not much, compared with the demographic or voter-file targeted banner and video ads that money could.

With Facebook ads, campaigns get functionally endless opportunities for targeting, plus the advantage of social sharing: everyone who sees a Facebook promoted post can Like it or Share it with one click, turning them into communications hubs in their own social circles. Plus, they can deliver name recognition in bulk at a relatively low price. And they’re not hard to set up.

What’s the marginal value of the 1000th political ad someone mutes during a football game? Not much. Click To Tweet

Are Democrats coasting on the notion that they “own” digital? Twitter was Trump territory last year, but his campaign also poured resources into highly targeted Facebook ads (as did their Russian “friends”). Is it inertia? Are campaigns simply following the last decade’s playbook, seeing TV as the route to undecided voters? Do too many campaign managers come from the broadcast media-buying world, biasing them toward channels they already understand?

Whatever the reason, Democrats MUST change in 2018 — too much is on the line, particularly with redistricting looming. Plus, Democrats need to inspire and mobilize millions of voters who won’t even see a TV ad in the weeks before the election, either because they’re filtering them out or because they’ve cut the cord completely. Digital and mobile ads are one of the few ways to reach them, and even cookie-targeted ads are not hard to buy. The short-circuit is between the ears, not in the keyboard.

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