2018 Political Digital Advertising Report

A comprehensive look inside a closed world

We're Living in a Digital World... But Campaigns Are Lagging Behind

2018 election spending

U.S. adults now spend an average of 6 hours per day with digital media. In 2019, digital advertising is projected to reach 54% of all ad spending in the U.S. In politics, though, digital remains an area that lacks investment and prioritization – one allocated only about 6.9% of all 2018 spend. New efforts from Facebook and Google have made it possible for TFC to bring some transparency to this largely closed-off world. This report is the most comprehensive analysis of how more than $600M of digital ad money was spent in 2018 at the party and campaign level, sharing what we learned from running ad programs for almost 60 campaigns in 2018.

The State of Political Digital

2018 political digital spend as a percentage of overall budgets was modest

For every $1 a donor gave, about $.03 - $.05 went to digital media

Political digital budgets are increasing but still small: only 2.7-5.1% of total campaign and PAC budgets went to digital ads, while closer to 50% went to television and direct mail. When looking at media budget allocation, it's a similar story with stark contrasts.

U.S. Senate campaigns spent only 4%-7% of their massive media budgets on digital media, while Trump spent 44% and commercial companies spend 54%

Average digital spend as percentage of total spend by candidate and Super PACs

The top campaign spenders tended to be large, contested statewide races, or now-Presidential candidates

Top 20 campaign digital ad spenders in 2018

Top Super PACs and political committees, like Priorities USA, Americans for Prosperity, and the Senate Leadership Fund (charged with electing Republicans to the U.S. Senate) also spent tens of millions on Facebook and Google, outweighing the vast majority of campaigns. In fact, of the top 15 largest spenders, only two were campaigns: Beto O'Rourke and Donald Trump.

Party differences don't stop at politics: Republicans favor Google versus Facebook

For federal races, Republicans spent 48% of their budget on Google, whereas Democrats only spent 25%.

spend allocation across Google and Facebook in 2018

A much higher proportion of Republicans' digital spend went through PACs and political committees – 73% of their total Facebook and Google spend. At 64%, campaigns represented the majority of Democratic spend.

56% of Google political spend happened within a month of the election

This leaves little to no time to take advantage of digital ads' test-and-iterate model to evolve campaign messaging in a cost-efficient and data-driven way. While some of this trend is surely due to last minute donor dollars, 42% of political advertisers on Google only started spending seriously in the final four weeks.

Weekly political ad spend on Google in 2018

Our campaigns experienced the strong effect of this late rush: CPMs rose 25% in the eight weeks before Election Day. The last weeks of the election were not the only area where dollars competed for limited supply: some states experienced seriously disproportionate spending patterns.

2018 Campaign Learnings

Digital ads are mobile ads

Over 90% of ad spend was delivered to mobile devices. This was not unique to TFC's experience; in Q4 2018, Facebook disclosed that over 93% of its ad revenue was coming from mobile devices. Why is this important? Mobile ads have unique requirements for creative content - like subtitles, front-loading the narrative, and square/vertical video aspect ratios. Simply repurposing television ads to show online is ineffective, but a frequent practice.

93% of Facebook's digital ad revenue from mobile devices

The “Selfie Lift” is real

Selfie-style videos, like those shot on mobile phones, tended to be 20% cheaper to run than more highly produced, television-style content – a mark of positive relevance on Facebook – and that's before factoring in production costs of non-selfie videos.

Selfie video ads are 20% cheaper to run

Authenticity is fundamental. TFC campaigns also found enormous success repurposing organic content as ads. They look less like staid political communications, and campaigns often use this method to promote content that is already doing well. The result are ads that can have a 70-90% lower cost-per-click than traditional ads.

Digital is for everyone

Facebook ad click-through-rate for users 55+ was a full 2-3x higher than for those under 55. The idea that “my district is older” is not a good reason to skip digital investment for campaigns.

Digital ad click-through rate on Facebook by age

The 2020 Presidential race is well underway and Trump has spent more than all other candidates combined

Presidential candidate ad spend in 2018 and early 2019

A final note

At TFC, experimentation and learning are fundamental. One of the things we love most about digital media and technology is the quick and continual learning and improvement it allows. Although this report's insights have already been incorporated into how TFC runs our work in this arena, we are publishing this widely so a broader audience can benefit from additional transparency and learnings into what is fast becoming one of the most important ways for candidates for office to communicate with voters. As the country readies itself for 2019 and 2020 elections, truly taking the time to examine what went well – and what didn't – is key to producing better outcomes and continuous improvement. We hope that other organizations and companies continue to make data and analyses more readily available - we'll all be better for it.

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Thank you

Tech for Campaigns is powered by the skills, enthusiasm, and expertise of our more than 10,000 volunteers and incredible staff. This project was made possible by their efforts. Thank you to:

Cindy Wang, Max Brettler, Ryan Schoen, Patrick Stauffer, Karen Rhorer, Larissa Uredi, Paulina Leperi, William Nicholas, Juliet Logan, Matt Hagopian, Suzanne Wong, Amanda Wynter, Kathryn Evans, Zack Gorman, Tony Wu, Zach Harris, Paul Wattenberger, Peter Imai, Kerry Rodden, Jonathan Einav, Kevin Reynolds, Zach Winston, Anela Chan, Greg Dale and Amy Skerry-Ryan.