Welcome to FWIW, ACRONYM’s weekly newsletter breaking down digital ad investment across the political spectrum. Each week, we look at whose digital spending is up, whose is down, and whose is non-existent.
For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.
You may be deep in reading the redacted Mueller report, but our team at ACRONYM has been digging into another report this week – first quarter FEC reports 🤓. While the media, campaigns, and pundits alike have been focused on how much each 2020 presidential candidate raised this quarter, we looked at what they spent those dollars on – from digital ads to consultants to tools – and what that means more broadly about this election cycle.
2020 by the numbers
Donald Trump is back to outspending the rest of the 2020 field online. He spent over $238K on Facebook and Google the week of April 7 – 13, while Andrew Yang was the top Democratic spender for the week.
In terms of cumulative digital investment, last week’s spending put Warren at the top of the field in overall digital advertising spending since the launch of each campaign. Both Warren and Bernie have spent over $1 million on Facebook and Google ads since entering the race, followed by Kamala Harris whose total digital investment is around $925K.
Here are the top Facebook and Google spenders from April 7 – 13.
Deep Dive: The object of our af-FEC–tion
Earlier this week, the FEC reports of all the declared presidential candidates were released (excluding any candidates who filed to run for president after March 31st). While the release of these reports often draw attention around how much each candidate raised during the first three months of the year, how quickly they’re spending that money, or how much cash campaigns have in the bank, we took a different approach.
Over the past week, our team has been digging into the FEC reports with the sole purpose of understanding how much of an emphasis each campaign is putting on digital strategies, investments and technology to power their campaigns and meet voters where they are. Here’s what we found.
the bottom line:
One trend we found across every campaign: they’re all investing in digital. Some, more than others – and some more creatively than others, but we’re glad to see that every campaign recognizes that digital must be part of their strategy to build support, fundraise and get their message to voters.
In terms of overall investment, here is a rundown of how much of the campaigns’ Q1 spending was invested into digital strategies. We included the following in this analysis:
Dollars spent on ads online (purchased directly through Facebook, Google, etc or through a firm)
Dollars spent on digital tools and technology to power a campaign or organizing program
Fees to ActBlue for processing online donations
Digital consultant fees
What’s driving these numbers? A few things:
Digital advertising budgets: The campaigns with large digital advertising budgets (i.e. Beto, Sanders and Warren) are likely to have higher percentages of their expenditures dedicated to digital. However, that can be offset if the campaign is spending more money on fixed costs, like staff salaries, rent, etc.
Fees, fees fees: Included in these percentages aren’t just the cost of ad inventory on various platforms – they also often include both declared and hidden costs of the firms and consultants hired to place those advertisements and advise on digital communications strategy. And don’t forget that ActBlue charges a fee for each donation made to a campaign through that platform – so the more small-dollar donations a candidate gets, the more they have to pay to ActBlue. And that’s before ActBlue asks donors for a tip!
Overall spending: You may not have expected to see Mayor Pete as high up on this list. Yes, he’s investing in digital advertising, but that’s not where the bulk of his digital spending is going – at least not yet. The reason such a large percentage of his expenses in Q1 were for digital tools, infrastructure, and strategy is because his overall expenses were so small. He only spent $685K in the first quarter, which makes sense given that his popularity didn’t rise until March. It’s also notable how much his campaign raised online in Q1 compared to how much they spent on digital ads, insinuating the large majority of those contributions were driven by organic and earned media over paid asks or lists.
Infrastructure investments: Campaigns need data and technological infrastructure to reach and communicate with voters. One-time or monthly fees to CRM programs, access to voter data, and canvassing + organizing apps can both power campaign communications programs online and offline – but their costs can quickly add up.
What we *technically* think
In addition to digital advertising, we care a lot at ACRONYM about digital tools to help power a campaign and enable candidates to get their messages to voters – online and offline. So our Digital Organizing team, led by ACRONYM Organizing Director Dan Bram, dug into which campaigns are using which digital tools – and what that says about this cycle so far. Here’s our hot take™️ (and make sure to follow Dan on Twitter for some great analysis + clever puns):
ActBlue reigns supreme Mirroring the Democratic field’s emphasis on grassroots fundraising, the single largest money maker in the political tech space during Q1 was by far the donation processing software ActBlue, bringing in over $2.4 million.
Progressive CRM company NGP VAN was the runner up, bringing in $362,390 – only 15% of what ActBlue made during the same period. It should also be noted that ActBlue was the only political tech tool to be used by all 15 campaigns that ACRONYM tracked. Again, trailed by NGP VAN who had Q1 contracts with 14 of the 15 races.
Andrew Yang breaks with the rest of the field in his tech stack
The Yang campaign is the only 2020 presidential campaign to not have an NGP VAN contract during Q1, instead opting to use the nonpartisan tools Aristotle and Nationbuilder which was famously used by the Trump campaign in 2016.
Additionally, the Yang campaign appears to be using more private sector marketing and growth tech for their outreach and organizing efforts than other campaigns that are using tools specifically built for progressive campaigns. This includes tools like HotJar and CoSchedule. He’s also announced that he will be campaigning via a 3D hologram, so there’s that …
Every day they’re Hustlin’…or not?
Hustle does not appear to be the definitive peer-to-peer texting tool of choice despite its prominence in 2018, and actually brought in less revenue in Q1 from presidential campaigns than its main competitor, Thrutext (formerly Relay).
During the 2018 cycle, Hustle signed a lot of reseller agreements with state parties and national contracts with Democratic committees. However, after a massive round of layoffs following the 2018 election, it appears that during Q1 they only signed contracts with 2 presidential campaigns, netting them a meager $12,863. On the other hand, Thrutext (formerly known as Relay), has gained ground by bagging two campaigns and bringing in $109,877.
Democratic campaigns are using fewer tools overall than they did in 2018, but appear to be investing more deeply in the ones they do use.
Without national committees footing the bill for experimental tech, presidential campaigns appear to be doubling down on tools with longer, more robust track records. This is especially notable after seeing which tools crashed under the pressure of the 2018 election’s GOTV efforts.
Campaigns are placing big bets on some tools up front. It appears that Beto O’Rourke’s campaign paid $121,332 upfront for mobile canvassing app Polis, and Elizabeth Warren paid $108,000 up front for Mobilize (not to be confused with MobilizeAmerica). Most tools work off of a monthly or per use model, and what we assume are upfront payments demonstrates these campaigns’ commitments to these tools. Or they could just be very high monthly costs…
We’re in a totally different political tech world than at this point during Q1 of 2015
Think back to Q1 2015: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and “block of granite” Lincoln Chafee. At that point, campaigns primarily using NGP VAN and ActBlue. Now, however, with both a larger field of candidates and larger marketplace of tools to choose from, we’re seeing campaigns truly investing in tech to augment their voter outreach and fundraising efforts.
The first use of Hustle was with the Sanders campaign in Iowa close to the caucus in February of 2016 – now peer-to-peer texting is almost a must for launching a respectable organizing effort a year out from the first contest.
It’s clear that campaigns are seeing the value of digital technology and tools to power their campaigns – but it doesn’t come free. We’ll continue to keep an eye on where and how campaigns are investing in digital tools, and how those investments may or may not be impacting their chances in the 2020 field. And if you want a rundown on which digital tools are best for different campaign strategies or goals, check out ACRONYM’s Digital Tools Assessment, where Dan and his team analyzed nearly 75 digital tools on the market today.
BONUS: Howard Schultz running very on-brand ads 🧐
This week, we finally spotted some ads running by independent candidate Howard Schultz. And they seem to be in line with how the rest of his “campaign” is going. Take a look, and let us know what you think:
That’s all for this week. But before you go, we want to make one ask of you – if you love FWIW, forward this email to three friends. They can sign up for weekly updates at www.anotheracronym.org/fwiw, follow us on Twitter and email us with ideas of what we should dive into next.
– 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.