The campaign-world cold war may finally be ending, and digital consultants, if you ask them, say they may have finally convinced old-school managers of the value of spending campaign money online.
Terry McAuliffe’s successful gubernatorial run in Virginia saw him spend close to $1.5 million with digital advertising firm Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI) alone. That’s about one-tenth of the budget that went into television through Shorr, Johnson, Magnus, but it still represents a major philosophical shift, says Andrew Bleeker, CEO of BPI.
“For a long time, digital was the flashy thing you had to have, but you weren’t sure what it did,” says Bleeker. “Campaigns are maturing to the role of digital. The core goals of a campaign are something digital can really contribute to—actual votes, getting the message out, raising money. We’ve stopped wasting time on the frivolity.”
That, consultants say, is perhaps the most important takeaway from 2013: If you want to find out which half of your ad budget is being wasted, go digital.
“On the advertising side it really comes down to data,” says Bleeker, who directed online advertising for Obama’s 2008 campaign and was embedded with the president’s effort last year. “How much are we learning from what’s going on out there?”
According to Bleeker, “The days of the soccer mom and the NASCAR dads are done.” Voter profiles are much more sophisticated than the labels applied to them by pollsters, he explains. “Modeling is the new norm. We’re taking the models from the 2012 race, we’re applying them to local races at scale, and the whole paid media program is following that.”
To create its models, McAuliffe’s campaign hired Blue Labs, an analytics and data firm. Harrison Kreisberg, a consultant with the firm who was embedded with the McAuliffe camp, says that motivating the 2012-13 drop-of voters was crucial. “We were able to figure out who’s likely to turn out and who’s likely to support us, and from those models we were able to derive universes of who we wanted to go after using what’s realistic,” he says. “Using that modeling, we helped [the campaign] in the real world actually knock on the [doors of ] people who were going to be most efficient for them.”
Another hallmark of McAuliffe’s effort was the campaign’s penchant for live-free experimentation. “In a small, controlled scenario, we tested who was most likely to be affected by voter contact,” says Kreisberg. “We figured out the types of people who move, and then built a model to figure out, in general, whom we should contact.” That allowed the campaign to “be a lot more precise about who we talk to, when and how,” Kreisberg says.
If digital is the new norm, it will need the budget to go with it. That’s something some Republican consultants say their party is still struggling with after 2013. In Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli was outraised by McAuliffe by some $15 million, which left him outgunned on television. As the race began turning in the Democrat’s favor, it wasn’t his digital strategist whom Cuccinelli turned to for help.
“With all the good cultural changes [in 2013], what didn’t change is that when the budget had to be slashed, digital was one of the very first things on the chopping block,” says Wesley Donehue, who was the lead digital strategist for Cuccinelli. With a bigger budget, Donehue, CEO of Push Digital, says he could have potentially closed the gap with McAuliffe, who won by less than three points.
“The closeness of the race had a lot to do with the sophisticated targeting Cuccinelli used. The problem was purely monetary,” he says. “It’s like we built an amazing car and didn’t have money to put gas in it.”
Money wasn’t a problem in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie had a $13.2-million war chest. There, too, replicating the tactics of the Obama campaign was one of the cycle’s success stories, albeit for the Republican. Using Rentrak data, the Christie camp was able to find the state’s persuadable voters and talk to them on the shows they were watching.
“With a much smaller budget, I think we mimicked a lot of what President Obama’s campaign did last year,” says Mike DuHaime, Christie’s lead strategist. “We were trying to do what has been done on the presidential level previously.”
The Christie camp also spent more than $1 million on Spanish-language television advertising, where a self-selected audience could hear the governor’s message to Latinos. That move, combined with dedicated Spanish-speaking field staff, and Spanish-language volunteer phone banks, helped the governor take 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, an increase of 19 percent over his 2009 performance.
Christie also gave Republicans a model for running to one side of the national party, which was largely blamed for the government shutdown. “There’s no doubt that the shutdown hurt the [GOP] brand everywhere,” says DuHaime. Christie had gotten an early start to his reelection effort, rolling out labor and Democratic endorsements as early as last December. By the time the shutdown rolled around, “Christie’s brand was strong enough that it [could] supersede that."
And whether it was New Jersey, Virginia or Alabama, races in 2013 continued to see growth in the volume of advertising, and the speed at which it needed to be delivered.
“Everything is turning on its head, as far as production,” says Casey Phillips, a media consultant for Wells Griffith during his bid for the GOP nomination in Alabama’s 1st House District special election. “We made an ad where we didn’t have a script at 9 a.m. We shot it at 11 a.m., I edited it on the plane, turned it around and had it up on TV the next day.”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.