Welcome to FWIW, ACRONYM’s weekly newsletter breaking down digital strategy and investments across the political spectrum. Each week, we look at how campaigns are – or aren’t – leveraging smart digital strategies to drive narratives and win elections.
For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.
This week we saw women’s reproductive rights come under attack with legislation in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri. But how has that battle manifested itself online? How have campaigns and organizations on both sides been using digital ads to drive narratives around the issue of abortion and engage their bases? How have conservative groups attempted to reframe the abortion debate with coordinated, extreme – and entirely false – messaging? We take a closer look in this week’s FWIW.
2020 by the numbers
Donald Trump’s campaign digital spending dipped slightly over the past week, but he’s now spent nearly $9 million on Google and Facebook since the midterms. You can see all these charts and how they change over time at our FWIW Digital Dashboard.
Quickly after launching his campaign last week, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet began spending heavily on Facebook and Google to immediately raise his name ID and bring in small dollar donations.
Joe Biden’s campaign, the biggest digital spender on the Democratic side, significantly outspent Donald Trump last week on Facebook and Google. Harris, Biden, and Warren have now begun to greatly outspend the Sanders campaign online.
Here are the top Facebook and Google spenders from May 5 – May 11:
On both platforms last week, Democratic campaigns and affiliated organizations greatly outspent conservative groups.
Deep Dive: The online battle over women’s reproductive rights
This week, much of the nation was shocked by the full-on assault on women’s access to abortion in places like Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia. In particular, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that would outright ban abortion in the state and sentence doctors and other medical professionals to prison time. Both online and offline, the abortion issue once again erupted as a rallying cry for Democrats and Republicans alike. But, it’s not just ads about the recent legislation that have been filling people’s Facebook newsfeeds. For months now, Republican groups have been using digital advertising to push extreme, coordinated, and often misleading messages against elected Democrats up and down the ballot. And as we told the New York Times yesterday, they’ve forced Democrats to react.
The GOP’s motivation? There are many.
Since January, we’ve noticed numerous conservative campaigns, organizations, and GOP state parties have been running ads pushing the false narrative that Democrats are in support of actual infanticide. Gruesome messages calling Democrats “the party of death” have been a consistent feature of anti-choice advertising around the country. As 7 in 10 Americans support access to abortion, we don’t think these hyper-negative ads are likely targeted towards persuading middle of the road or swing voters on this issue, but instead are being leveraged to excite and energize core conservative supporters to stay engaged online, donate, or take action.
1. Energizing the base early to expand list size and fundraise
Several weeks ago, the Massachusetts Republican Party began running Facebook ads that localized the infanticide narrative while targeting nearly every incumbent Democratic legislator in the Commonwealth. In strongly pro-choice Massachusetts, these ads weren’t meant to persuade independent voters on the issue, but clearly targeted to misinform and confuse voters on local politicians’ records, inflame the party’s base, and build the party’s email list through petition signups:
Abortion access isn’t the only issue that Republican groups like the Massachusetts GOP are using to rile up conservatives and demonize elected leaders in the state. We’ve also seen conservative groups – from Donald Trump’s campaign to state parties across the country – use the issue of immigration, another red-meat issue for conservatives, to rile up their base to fundraise and list-build.
2. Energizing a conservative base electorate in low-turnout elections
Ads with these extreme, fear-mongering and false narratives are being pushed online particularly around special elections and Republican primary elections with low turnout. Motivating the most conservative base voters to show up at the polls was likely a key strategy for Republicans in driving these types of false narratives. Here are just a few examples:
3. Leveraging online and offline strategies to push their message
Here’s their playbook: A Republican-controlled legislature passes an extreme anti-choice bill. Then, a Democratic governor vetoes that legislation. Later, conservatives run attack ads against said Governor. It’s not a new strategy – but this cycle, it’s already being waged online in states with competitive gubernatorial elections in 2020. For example, this year we saw conservative state legislatures in Montana and North Carolina pass “born alive” bills rolling back abortion rights and women’s access to health care, knowing that Democratic governors in those states would veto the bills.
Immediately following those vetoes, national conservative groups like Susan B. Anthony List started running Facebook ads targeting North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to start to motivate and engage conservative voters months before the gubernatorial elections in 2020.
4. Influence public opinion in advance of a court battle
The messaging being pushed by conservatives nationwide on this issue seems to be a coordinated effort to misinform voters in advance of the 2020 election and a potential battle over abortion rights in the courts. For example, Restoration PAC – the conservative super PAC bankrolled primarily by Richard Uihlein – has spent $111,149 on Facebook and Google advertising about “infanticide” since the start of February on ads targeting vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection in 2020.
Again, it’s unlikely these messages are being delivered to Democratic or Independent voters and are meant to rile up base voters to start to get them engaged in advance of 2020. However, driving these extreme, base-baiting ads on Facebook early and consistently can also increase the chances of those ads being shared and distributed organically by conservative voters – in hopes of chipping away at public understanding and perception of abortion. And that’s exactly what a misinformation campaign is designed to do.
Progressives and 2020 candidates are pushing back in support of abortion rights
The nationwide assault on women’s access to health care and abortion rights is also an issue that energizes and motivates voters on the left. That’s why we’re also seeing Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations, including many 2020 Democratic candidates for president, leaning into what’s happening in places like Alabama and Missouri to engage voters, particularly around the presidential primary. This week, after the Alabama legislature’s vote was announced, candidates from Elizabeth Warren to Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke quickly broadcast messages of support to pro-choice organizations and grassroots groups on the ground.
Kamala Harris began running ads on this issue for her own campaign’s email list acquisition, as her campaign also joined others like Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and O’Rourke in sending fundraising emails encouraging their donor base to support organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Yellowhammer Fund, and The National Network of Abortion Funds – organizations that provide abortion and health care services to millions of people.
We also saw Kirsten Gillibrand – one of the most vocal of the 2020 candidates on this issue – leverage social media and digital advertising to not only raise funds for local organizations like the Yellowhammer Fund, but also to build support for her own place among the 2020 candidates.
By prioritizing the issue and framing herself as the strongest advocate for reproductive rights in the Democratic field, she’s able to make a powerful case for progressives to donate to her campaign to help her get on the debate stage. Here’s some ads she’s started running along those lines encouraging voters to ensure that her voice and perspective is represented in the primary debates:
Gillibrand also merged this strategy with offline aspects of her campaign, immediately traveling to Atlanta to hold an event at the Georgia State Capitol to condemn the recent attacks on abortion and women’s rights.
The Bottom Line:
Conservative groups large and small across the country are driving a coordinated, extreme message on abortion online to spread misinformation and energize their base around local elections in advance of 2020 and to influence public opinion in preparation for a court fight. Although some Democratic campaigns are not letting these conservative attacks go unanswered to their base voters, it’s not enough to just react to well-coordinated, offensive attacks. Democrats need to be driving their own proactive messages to voters online – especially when the majority of voters are on their side of the issue.
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– the team at ACRONYM
P.S. You can find today’s issue of FWIW here and read this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia at this link.