Campaigns embrace web advertising

Originally published January 31, 2013

While all eyes were on digital strategy last year during a presidential campaign in which both sides spent millions online trying to persuade voters, 2013 offers an equally compelling opportunity for both parties to try out new digital strategies and utilize old ones.

Big gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, not to mention a special Senate election in Massachusetts and mayoral races in New York and Los Angeles, could see campaigns devote record shares of their budgets to digital strategy.

“The campaigns that were the most successful in 2012 were the campaigns that took digital the most seriously and invested heavily in online advertising and social media to raise money, persuade people to support their candidate and to motivate their supporters to actually turn out on Election Day,” said Rob Saliterman, who manages Republican advertising at Google. “I think in 2013, campaigns in Virginia, Massachusetts and New Jersey are going to look at 2012 as a model in terms of what worked and what didn’t.”

Some of these states are particularly well-suited to digital advertising on a basic level. Because many of their voters live in expensive media markets that encompass other states, campaigns can avoid spending as much money on expensive TV ads viewed in large numbers by people who won’t even vote. In New Jersey, the two major media markets are New York and Philadelphia; in Virginia, the Washington media market encompasses most of the vote-rich northern part of the state.

GOP consultant Peter Pasi said in the past, campaigns had to bite the bullet and spend big in those media markets anyway. Digital, he said, is a more cost-effective option.

“That had been the paradigm for a long time — it was just the way you do it,” Pasi added. “Now, people have options.”

Saliterman agreed.

“A [New Jersey] campaign that goes up on TV in New York or Philadelphia is spending a lot of money to reach people who couldn’t support their candidate even if they wanted to,” Saliterman said. “With online advertising, they’re able to target people within the boundaries of the state.”

And because of the national attention paid to the few 2013 races — and their role as a bellwether for the following year’s midterm elections — campaigns will feel pressure to step up their digital game, Saliterman and others said.

“Both parties certainly should use Virginia and New Jersey to test out digital tactics to use nationwide in the midterms,” said GOP strategist Vincent Harris, who’s done digital work for Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and now-Sen. Ted Cruz in 2012.

Virginia and New Jersey are nine months out from Election Day, and since the potential candidate fields in both New Jersey and the Massachusetts special election are still being sorted out, there’s been little digital activity there, so far. In Virginia, though, both campaigns are starting to get initial ads up online and fill out their digital operations.


Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign will announce in the coming days that it has hired Obama campaign alum Andrew Bleeker as a digital consultant and Blue State Digital’s Alex Kellner as its digital director.

Bleeker, who ran digital advertising for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, has also worked for John Kerry and Tim Kaine; his firm ran digital for Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill in 2012. Keller was digital director for McCaskill’s campaign last year.

The campaign is up with some initial Web display ads, hitting GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli as too extreme for Virginia.

“Stop Cuccinelli’s extreme agenda,” one ad says. “Tell Ken Cuccinelli to stop attacking birth control access.”

Cuccinelli, too, has started advertising online and using social media.

One ad ties McAuliffe to Obama: “President Obama’s Big Labor allies are funding Terry McAuliffe’s campaign,” the ad says, with a picture of McAuliffe and Obama together. “Fight back by joining Team Cuccinelli.”

Nick Everhart, president of the Strategy Group for Media, said digital allows campaigns to start reaching out to voters earlier than they would have if they were just buying TV and radio ads.

Digital advertising is cost-effective and “allows you to have a presence a lot earlier than you normally could in those states,” he said. “That’s a huge tool that really wasn’t in the toolbox a couple of years ago.”

Indeed, campaigns’ capability to harness the Web has grown exponentially since Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was elected in 2009.

Harris, who ran McDonnell’s digital operations that year, said using mobile was a “big test” for the campaign that ultimately wasn’t that successful. Now, Harris — who’s involved in the Virginia attorney general’s race — said it’s easy to use online advertising to target not just areas of the state but even specific individuals in advance of the GOP convention, where voters will choose their nominees for state-level positions.

Both for the state-level campaigns and the mayoral races, mobile will be an even bigger opportunity for campaigns to reach urban voters who otherwise might not be watching much live TV.

“It’s going to come down to, how does Northern Virginia vote and how do you reach some busy, non-TV-watching, tech-savvy people [there]?” Pasi said. “I think the answer there is mobile.”