Democratic congressional campaigns have a record fundraising haul to spend down the stretch but digital consultants are fretting that too much of this war chest is going to traditional media.
Consultants sniping about budget is nothing new.
But the Democratic practitioners who went public with their concerns are highlighting currents unique to 2018. This cycle, digital practitioners have grown into a role that’s part rainmaker, message tester, and overall campaign strategist.
There’s no question that the $1.06 billion the Democratic congressional campaigns have raised has been through an edge in online fundraising. ActBlue alone processed $16.8 million dollars from more than 300,000 donors on a single day — September 30th — which was a 14-year record for the Democratic fundraising platform, according to a recent release.
Still, the complaint goes, digital has to play second fiddle to traditional media consultants.
Even in Texas, where Beto O’Rourke is held up as a digital advertising trendsetter, the Democrat has already booked at least $18 million on TV for the final stretch, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks TV ad spending.
More than just a debate about channel and efficiency, the criticism from digital practitioners of their party’s budgeting reflects a debate underlying a year when their prospects of flipping one or both chambers are real: turn out the base to the Nth degree, or get their midterm drop-off voters to the polls?
Last week, Guy Cecil argued for the latter approach with a digital-first strategy.
“Given that young people and people of color are the biggest drop-off voters in mid-terms, this isn’t going to cut it for the last 4 weeks,” Guy Cecil, who chairs the PAC Priorities USA, tweeted Oct. 11, pointing to Google’s political ad transparency report and noting that there was only one Democratic group in the top six.
“There are double, triple, even quadruple tracks of TV in some races where we are being outspent online. … Thanks to partnerships with the House and Senate Majority PACs, we are closing this gap every day. More needs to be done at every level of campaigns.”
Now, O’Rourke isn’t being outspent by Sen. Ted Cruz (R) on Google’s ad platform. But take another competitive Senate race in Florida. There Gov. Rick Scott (R) is outspending Sen. Bill Nelson (D) more than two-to-one on Google’s channels, which include search and YouTube pre-roll.
Andrew Bleeker, who heads Bully Pulpit Interactive, was one of the Democratic practitioners willing to go on the record in response to what Cecil raised. Perhaps not surprisingly as the head of a digital firm, he agreed with his assessment.
“Fortunately, the Democratic PACs are carrying much of the water. But Dem campaigns overall are pacing far behind their R counterparts, [and] Republicans have even larger PACs,” Bleeker told C&E.
Bleeker isn’t against spending on TV adverting in a midterm when the electorate skews older and whiter, “but we need to be thinking about marginal cost and the overall tcpm [targeted cost per thousand] or cost to reach a voter wherever they are. And that’s not how most groups are currently making decisions.”
Beth Becker, a Democratic digital consultant who works up and down the ballot, said where the money goes is about who has the ear of the candidate.
“An awful lot of congressional campaigns are trusting their media consultants to run their digital advertising for them and one, they don't usually [have] near enough experience with it to do it all that well and two, they still see their bread and butter money as coming from TV so they push their clients to spend on that,” Becker said.
She noted that Google search was a critical channel down the stretch and one that campaigns ignore at their peril.
“People do still search and I'm doing a bunch of Google search ads right now with much lower CPCs [cost-per-clicks] than I usually see during an election cycle—and higher ctr [click-through-rate] than usual too.”