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.
After two years that seemed to have contained decades, the end of the 2020 election is finally upon us. Given how wildly different voting looks like this year and how blatantly Republicans everywhere are trying to distort the vote in their favor (or so they think), it’s almost impossible to know just what will happen in the coming days and weeks.
While we don’t have a crystal ball, we do have lots of data to tell us how this year’s most competitive Senate races have played out online. So, in this final pre-election edition of The Senate FYI, we’ll break down the yearlong toplines from races in five states: Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina. For the six races in these states, we’ll look at data points like the candidates’ digital ad spending in their own states, their organic social media footprint, and outside spending patterns.
There’s no time to lose, so let’s get into it.
Now more than ever, Americans are getting their news online, especially in their feeds on the major social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It goes without saying how critical it is for campaigns to have an organic presence on these platforms, not just so they can reach voters there, but so that the voters can engage with the campaign in return.
Here’s a look at the candidates’ social media footprints on the three biggest platforms (for incumbents, we only counted their followings on their campaign accounts):
Heading into Election Day, Jon Ossoff and Sara Gideon by far have the largest social media footprints, driven by their relatively huge Twitter + Insta followings. While they both certainly have stellar digital teams, we believe that their disproportionately large followings can be attributed to their unique circumstances.
For Ossoff, his large following is probably rooted in his 2017 run for Congress, when he ran in the first competitive House race in the Trump era. Likewise, Gideon’s huge Twitter following can likely be traced back to her being the candidate running against Susan Collins after the Republican senator voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. We also believe that Doug Collins’ relatively large FB audience is likely a result of his visceral defense of the president during Trump’s impeachment hearings late last year (remember that? Whew!).
However, having a large following can only take your message so far, especially when near-monopolizing companies like Facebook can do whatever they want with the content on their platforms. Ultimately, what matters is how you use your audience to reach as many other people as possible with your message. With CrowdTangle, we can get an idea of just how well the candidates’ content tends to perform on FB by directly comparing their posts’ interactions over every week so far:
Note for this graph: the width of the candidates’ interactions is what marks the number of interactions, not their position in the stack. For example, while Cal Cunningham is at the top, his FB content actually receives some of the fewest interactions among these candidates.
Another thing readers of this newsletter are probably aware of is Facebook’s overwhelming preference for inflammatory content. And probably not coincidentally, inflammatory content happens to be Doug Collins’ entire post-impeachment political brand, so it’s no wonder that as the race to the bottom between him and Kelly Loeffler has accelerated, so has his content’s performance on the platform. In case you’re wondering where that huge spike in his interaction comes from, we can look to his absolutely heartless statement following the sudden passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which is his second-most-engaged FB post to date.
All that said, while organic social content can often be the most cost-efficient way to get your message to voters’ news feeds since it’s technically free, any digital team worth their salt knows that no digital outreach program is complete without paid digital ads.
On the paid side of things, here’s a look at how the candidates in these six races have invested in FB + Google ads overall week over week throughout the year. Across these, you’ll notice a trend across the Democratic campaigns: their spending online exploded in September, coinciding with an enormous influx of cash following RBG’s passing.
And there’s one other trend: Republican candidates spent relatively little on FB + Google ads for almost the entire year. There is one exception to this among these candidates, and that’s Steve Daines, who spent at least $100,000 on digital ads every week since mid-May. However, we know that almost all of that spending is dedicated to out-of-Montana fundraising and acquisition; at his spending peak in mid-September, when he spent $222k on FB ads, only five percent of that money went to targeting Montanans with his messaging, a strategy that they seem to be sticking with until the election ends.
Besides the candidates’ campaigns, there’s a huge, complex nebula of outside groups pumping money into these states online to either unseat the GOP incumbents or prevent a Democratic Senate majority come 2021. Chief among them, though, are the Senate caucus’ campaign arms, their affiliated super PACs and 501(c)4 nonprofits, and Senate Majority PAC’s joint campaigns with Priorities USA Action. Here’s how much money these groups have spent on FB ads targeting these states over the past three months, when these groups spent about three-quarters of their digital budgets:
In the past three months, Priorities USA + SMP has only been targeting two states among this bunch: Maine, and mostly North Carolina, which also appears to have been Senate Leadership Fund’s priority among these six races. Overall, though, it isn’t surprising that Dem outside groups’ digital spending in these states far exceeds the GOP’s spending. Just like with the candidates themselves, Democratic outside groups started spending more on FB + Google ads earlier – and in close races like these, every little bit helps.
And that’s it…for now! For a near-complete total of how much these groups and campaigns have spent online, check out our Senate FYI digital spending dashboard. And with just five days to go, all that’s left is to get out (and protect) the vote. If you’re like us and you’re sitting anxiously counting down the days, our friends at Pod Save America have an excellent GOTV program so you can get involved in some of these extremely close Senate races. And if you yourself haven’t yet voted, follow the link below to check your registration and make a plan to vote.
We’re loath to say that this is the last time you’ll hear from us. After all, we could very well get a double-barrel runoff in Georgia if neither Ossoff nor Raphael Warnock gets more than 50% of the vote. But until then: stay safe, and see you on the other side.