Lessons from McAuliffe '13: Go digital early and often 

The McAuliffe campaign is being held up as a paragon of digital advocacy.

Since defeating Republican Ken Cuccinelli in November, the Virginia governor-elect's campaign has been widely recognized as one of the best-run efforts of 2013 and part of the reason for that was its use of digital advertising -- at least according to the consultants who helped the Democrat to a narrow victory. 

“A clear pattern has been developing for years now. Campaigns that win invest early and throughout, campaigns that lose usually don’t,” Jason Rosenbaum, who leads Google’s Democratic outreach, said in a case study released by Google and Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI), which worked for McAuliffe.

Digital advertising was a priority for the Democrat, who spent almost $1.5 million with BPI alone during his win over state Attorney General Cuccinelli.

“We were live with list building ads on Search in January 2013 -- almost a full year ahead of Election Day. Going up early also meant that we had time to optimize our digital strategy by testing what actually worked,” Danielle Butterfield of BPI said in the company's memo. “You wouldn’t run your GOTV ground operation without testing it first, and your digital ads program shouldn’t be any different. The testing we did leading up to those last few weeks of the campaign enabled us to feel confident that we had fine-tuned our strategy, running only the most effective media to reach key voters.”

McAuliffe, who lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2009, wasn't the favorite to win in November. In fact, he trailed his GOP rival by more than 4 points last May. But by November, some polls had McAuliffe up double digits. 

“Some campaigns would have looked at the polls putting Terry ahead and dialed back on their digital outreach efforts. We built the program to win a close race,” said BPI President Andrew Bleeker. “We knew that the race was closer than the newspapers said it was, and we kept our program running at full steam through the very end.”

The McAuliffe camp planned a major persuasion search initiative to reach voters doing last-minute research. As Election Day drew nearer, they accommodated spiking search traffic and drove to a polling place lookup to help supporters find their way to the polls.

McAuliffe subsequently won by less than three points.

“This is something that every race in the country can learn from,” Alex Kellner, the McAuliffe camp’s digital director, said in the memo. “It’s not a question of a campaign’s budget; the tools are there and anyone can do this with the right guidance and strategy. It’s just a question of whether you’re going to make it a priority. Terry McAuliffe did, and now he’s going to be the next Governor of Virginia.”

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