Welcome to the Senate FYI! Each week, we’ll track how the battle to flip the Senate is playing out where voters get their information—online. We’ll monitor spending on digital advertising, as well as watch how the campaigns are engaging supporters and voters online.
Democrats now have a wide path to flipping the Senate, with the most likely route going through Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina. As the cycle’s progressed, Democratic candidates have also become competitive in Iowa, Georgia, and Montana. With fewer than 50 days to go, the path might be wider still, with three more conservative-leaning states coming into play: South Carolina, Kansas, and…Alaska!
Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to do a deep dive into the state of each of these digital races. In this week’s Senate FYI, we’re kicking off with a look at America’s geographically biggest and politically weirdest state: The Last Frontier.
A new eye-popping poll from Quinnipiac University found that not only does Sara Gideon enjoy a 12-point polling lead over Susan Collins, but they also found that Jaime Harrison and Lindsey Graham are neck-and-neck at 48 percent each. After the poll was released, the Harrison campaign raised over $1 million in 24 hours.
Debates were held in both Maine and North Carolina this week between the Senate candidates in each race. In ME, where Donald Trump is very unpopular, Collins refused to say whether or not she would vote for the president. In NC, Republicans tried to skewer Cal Cunningham after he tried to explain that he would be hesitant to take a COVID-19 vaccine considering how blatantly the president is trying to rush and politicize its production process.
While the Biden campaign is so far shying away from door-to-door canvassing as a voter outreach tactic considering the pandemic, Steve Bullock’s and Gideon’s campaigns are both getting back into the practice.
One of the most notable developments over the past week was that the Theresa Greenfield campaign has significantly expanded their Facebook and Google ad investment. At the end of August, they spent under $70k on the platforms, but last week they spent over $288k! This was largely driven by investment in Google ads, as they spent over $237k on the platform with variations of two pro-Greenfield ads.
It would appear that both Democratic and Republican conferences have now likely ditched running digital ads through their respective 501c(4)s – Majority Forward and One Nation – as neither group spent a dime on Facebook or Google ads last week. We suspect that this might be because Dems and GOPers are moving their money away from acquisition to persuasion, which 501c(4) nonprofits can’t legally engage in directly.
In fact, the NRSC recently announced new ads in AZ and ME, while Dems recently announced new ads inIA and NC.
There hasn’t been a whole lot of movement in terms of how candidates are targeting their Facebook ads since we started reporting on this last week. One thing to note, though, is that while the Steve Daines campaign spent over $200k on FB ads alone last week, almost none of it – just five percent, compared to 12 percent the previous week – was targeted at Montana voters.
While Alaska is very red at the presidential level, the state is not entirely inhospitable to Democrats, and independents tend to enjoy some measure of success here due to the conservative but relatively nonpartisan preferences of the state. To wit, the only public poll since July shows that the race was at a 43/43 tie when it was conducted in late August.
Like another state that starts with A, voters here tend to like their mavericks (remember when Sen. Lisa M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I won as a write-in candidate in 2010?), which is the lane that left-leaning Independent Al Gross is trying to run in. Biographically speaking, Al Gross –an orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman – appears to be a shoo-in for the title of maverick as he takes on Sen. Dan Sullivan. Just watch his intro ad to see why.
But in a “small” state where some counties have zero internet access, digital tactics might be less useful than in other races. VoteVets, 314 Action, and Murkowski have gotten involved, but there don’t appear to be any outside groups meaningfully spending money on digital ads for this race yet, so today we’re going to be focusing on the candidates. Their spending trends of late tells us that digital outreach still plays a part, so let’s take a look at what they’ve been up to online.
When it comes to Google ads, Gross has mostly been running fundraising Google Search ads, some of which exclude Alaska and only target the lower 49. However, he has started running a handful of YT ads focused on protectingcoastal Alaska. It looks like they’re targeting the most populous zip codes in the state But, we admit that we’re hardly experts on Alaskan geography, so if you spot a pattern feel free to drop us a line!
Over the past 90 days, though, 88 percent of his Facebook ad spend has gone toward targeting Alaskans. Now, when most Senate campaigns this cycle run acquisition or fundraising ads, they usually distribute their targeting across the country in a variety of ways, but they don’t significantly target the state they’re running in. So normally, this would indicate to us that most of their FB ad spending is focused on persuasion, but that isn’t the case here.
According to the Facebook ad library, though, a fair amount of the Gross campaign’s fundraising and acquisition ads DO significantly target Alaska (anywhere from 20-70 percent of the total targeting depending on the ad), and they almost exclusively target older Americans. Conversely, their persuasion ads, which are almost all pro-Gross videos, overwhelmingly target young Alaskans.
While the Gross campaign started ramping up their FB + Google spending in early July, Dan Sullivan’s campaign didn’t start getting serious until early August. For starters, they’ve significantly grown their spending on YouTube ads, relatively speaking, with ads that focus on conservation and infrastructure and target Alaskans statewide.
The Sullivan campaign’s primary vehicle for digital ads appears to be Facebook, and there they run quite the variety of ads. From what we can tell, their more red-meat ads (featuring Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Ted Cruz of all people) target older Alaskans, whereas ones that focus on the issues, like conservation, infrastructure, and Native rights, mostly target younger Alaskans. And FYI, about 73 percent of their Facebook ads target Alaskans.
And that’s it for this week! See any interesting posts or digital ads from Senate candidates that we missed? See ads or digital strategies that we should note? Send us an email! You can also check out our previous issues on our website, and be sure to check out our online dashboard for a detailed breakdown of candidates’ digital spending.