2022 Political Digital Advertising Report

a look back at  what has (and hasn’t) CHANGED with campaigns and their digital strategies

The 3 trends highlighting what has (and hasn’t) changed in politics

With the 2020 election  behind us and the critical need to have campaigns focus disproportionately on digital fading, we asked ourselves what digital trends and behaviors stuck and what reverted back to the pre-2020 norm in this last election year. The results will surprise you.

Read on to see the three core trends we saw and what has (and hasn’t) changed in terms of how campaigns are spending their dollars (especially compared to commercial advertisers and between parties), who that will ultimately end up reaching, and whether specific messages resonate to the average swing voter.

Trend #1: Political groups still have major gaps in digital spending v. commercial advertisers

Despite the advantages of digital, political advertisers are still significantly under-investing v. commercial advertisers - commercial advertisers spend 72% of ads budgets on digital while political ads budgets go primarily to TV and mail - only 28% to digital. And while commercial advertisers have continued to increase their investment in digital, political advertisers’ shift has not matched their pace (+4 for political advertisers v. +9 all US advertisers). TV and direct mail are still the #1 and #2 highest investments in media.

And political groups are still deploying digital late, when it’s the most expensive.

In 2018, 56% of Google spend was deployed in the last month. While that trend has improved to 36% in 2022, digital dollars are still being spent later than needed and when it is the most expensive to do so.

DemocratIC candidates outspent opponents across digital platforms but are still underindexing in terms of digital share

While Democrats in Federal races understand the importance of digital more than State races, it’s still under-indexing v. commercial advertisers. Democratic candidates invested more heavily in digital ads than Republicans in both the 2020 and 2022 cycles, both in terms of raw dollars and percent of their own budgets. 

Democratic Senate candidates in 2022 spent almost $100M in Meta and Google ads (`10% of total campaign budgets) v. Republicans’ $22M (~5% of total campaign budgets) with the NRSC disproportionately supporting their Republicans candidates (45% of total digital spend) v. Democrat candidates doing the lion’s share of spending (85% of total digital spend) v. the DSCC.

Note: In contrast, historically ~50% of Democratic Senate candidates’ digital ads target donors. The “warchests” generated by small dollar donors are particularly important for candidates in tight races. Democratic Senate candidates in the 2022 cycle depended on small donors for a fundraising boost of $334M (or 38% of their total budget) per FEC filings.

But Super PACs and partisan-leaning orgs, especially Republicans, are dominating the digital ecosystem, complicating digital spend by party

The Meta ecosystem is dominated by conservative third-party spenders, including media corporations (The Daily Wire, PragerU, Newsmax), PACs and committees (such as SLF).

Among the top 100 political spenders on Meta in 2022, Republican Super PACs and partisan-leaning orgs spent $72.3M (with an average of $3.0M spent per group) v. $3.7M spent by Republican candidates. In contrast, Democratic Super PACs spent $70.6M (average of $1.8M per group) v. $38.0M spent by candidates.

Are digital ads more cost effective than traditional TV? YES! By more than 12x

For state legislative races, digital ads are still 12x more cost efficient than traditional media in terms of incremental ad recall1 yet campaigns are still disproportionately spending on TV and direct mail. 85% of inefficiency is due to TV buys that still require coverage of a DMA larger than an individual state legislative district. On digital platforms, targeting is much more geographically precise.

Are digital platforms effective at reaching younger, more diverse voters? YES! And campaigns need to reach them there.

Younger consumers are heavily consuming news on digital platforms, with 78% of 16-40 year olds consuming news at least once a week on YouTube, 75% on Facebook, 65% on Instagram and 54% on TikTok. Other platforms also have high penetration and offer paid advertising opportunities with the exception of TikTok (which is still considered a strong channel for earned media). Campaigns and programs need to be focused on reaching voters on these platforms, not just repurposing TV ads.

Was digital advertising more expensive in 2022 than in 2020? NO! And it was still 4x cheaper than traditional TV 

Broadcast TV may have a higher overall recall rate than digital ads (perhaps 2x or more), but CPMs for broadcast television increased between 2020 and 2022 from $36 to $45, even as digital CPMs inched downward from $20 to $11.15. 

For TFC, digital was even more efficient as the cost of advertising in digital stayed flat/saw a slight decline v. 2020

Despite iOS privacy changes that were widely expected to impact the cost efficiency of digital advertising on digital platforms, TFC’s digital programs were more efficient in reaching voters in 2022 as they were in 2020 ($13.02 v. $11.15 on Meta, for example). Part of this efficiency improvement, even in a challenging market, comes from our increasing expertise in finding the people we want to target

Trend #2: Media dollars shifted among channels with major redistribution to new platforms like CTV

While overall spending only shrank slightly from 2020 to 2022, we saw a massive shift in digital advertising between 2020 and 2022 including a ~48% decrease in digital platforms such as Meta/Google and a ~78% increase in CTV.

What’s causing the shift to CTV? One reason: linear TV is losing out to digital streaming which continues to grow

In 2022, cable and broadcast television continued to lose market share to streaming options, representing only 56% of the market between the two, and with a demographic that skews older and for the first time in 2022 streaming also exceeded cable for more than 4 consecutive months. In tandem, time spent on digital media continues to increase for all demographics.

But is CTV cost effective? Sort of. While more expensive than Meta/Google, CTV offers a cheaper alternative to traditional TV

Our Campaign Services program ran CTV advertising through the StackAdapt platform, and saw CPMs, though higher than Meta and Google, were still lower than broadcast TV. CTV has the potential to have the upsides of premium video and television advertising (e.g. higher recall rate), while offering the possibility of digital targeting. 

But political advertisers are shifting $ differently than commercial - pulling dollars from Meta and Google rather than Linear TV. 

Commercial advertisers are shifting dollars away from linear TV (58%) more than from paid social (41%) and using it like they would for linear TV, i.e. awareness and impressions/views, where younger viewers are. In contrast, political advertisers shifted much more so from Meta/Google than linear TV in 2022 - CTV grew +9 ppt to represent 18% of ad spend while digital shrank -8ppt and linear TV remind almost unchanged (-1 ppt).

Why are commercial and political advertisers shifting $ from different media sources to CTV? Incentives

Campaigns still operate in the model where the TV media consultant (who typically make money as a % of media dollars deployed) gets the largest $ from and first allocation to the media budget. And with CTV metrics being geared towards impressions (e.g. how many people saw your ad) instead of conversions (e.g. how many people go vote), it’s a language TV media consultants understand. They can take expensive TV ads and re-run them easily on CTV. Whatever $ is left over goes to digital. Commercial advertisers who have tested the best performing creative assets get additional metrics they don’t see with linear TV and likely prefer to shift dollars from there more than other performance-oriented channels.

Trend #3: Abortion messaging didn’t necessarily mobilize the average swing voter

Targeting primary voters on abortion messaging underperformed more generic motivational voter registration messaging, with a 28% lower click-through rate (0.85% v. 0.52% click through rates).

In a second test targeting general election voters, abortion performed significantly better when paired with specific ballot measures and fundamental messages about ease and convenience of voting (23% higher click-rate v. generic messaging at 0.74% v. 0.60% click through rates).

These results underscore the importance of testing and identifying the impact of issue messaging on persuasion v. mobilization.

Why this matters

Even after having campaigned relying heavily on digital means, the mindset that digital (and technology) are integral to the success of a campaign is still underappreciated. And while political advertising continues to lag commercial advertisers, the latter is continuing to innovate and leverage the best of what digital has to offer, including new tools like generative AI.

The digital ads landscape in 2024 will likely be transformed by generative AI (and is already making major waves in 2023). Democratic campaigns need continued investment and major shifts in media allocations to allow for ample testing and iteration in order to learn these tools and identify how to best leverage them in upcoming races.

Partnering with hundreds of campaigns has given us a unique perspective into what is and isn’t feasible in terms of digital sophistication but let us be clear: without continued investment in digital, Democrats will be in a precarious position in upcoming elections. We hope you’ll join us in taking action to not only bring this year's learnings, but new ones for election cycles to come, to Democratic campaigns.