What do you give a campaign that already has everything? “More money,” the fundraising consultants would surely say. But with budgets in races for House and Senate already soaring this year, will some of the usual cash-saving practices go out the window?
For example, campaigns frequently turn to digital microtargeting to get the most value out of their ad budgets. The logic, of course, is that you shouldn’t waste ad dollars on people who aren’t likely to vote for you under any circumstances.
To make an analogy, field organizers also generally try to target their GOTV outreach to friendly voters who need a nudge, with volunteers often knocking on just a percentage of the doors on a given block. Volunteer shifts are a relatively scarce commodity for most campaigns, and every minute spent with a non-voter or an unpersuadable one is time that could have been applied to turning out a reliable ally who just needs a push to go to the polls.
But as a friend of mine said about field a few years ago, if you have enough volunteers, you can just canvass everyone. Similarly, if a campaign has enough money, shouldn’t it flood every digital device in the state, county or district with ads?
First off, even with unlimited field resources, most campaigns still wouldn’t visit every house or call every phone during a GOTV push. They might try to talk with every potential voter months before the election, particularly in states with a spotty field-outreach history. I recall a Georgia Democrat mentioning at the Reed Awards in Atlanta a couple of years ago that hundreds of thousands of voters in the state had never been canvassed at all. In a case like that, a broad effort six months or a year out may make perfect sense, particularly if tied to a voter-registration drive.
But even the most resource-rich campaigns would still likely skip the houses of hard-core opponents in weeks before Election Day, for fear that a field visit might actually turn out an unfriendly voter. Likewise, people not registered aren’t going to be able to cast a vote at all, except in states with late or same-day registration, so they’ll go uncontacted as well.
Similar considerations apply to digital advertising. We also don’t want our ads to incense a hostile voter so much that they go out of their way to show up on Election Day themselves — and bring friends. Plus, an ad shown to someone unable to vote is almost always an ad wasted.
And though I discussed a backlash against over-aggressive microtargeting a few months back, we do know that data-targeted ads can help deliver usefully different messages to distinct slices of the electorate. The trick is to make sure that the data modeling and the content are equal to the moment. Bad model means the wrong voters see the content. Bad content means there’s no effect, or worse — a backlash.
Most often, effective campaigns will seek a balance between broader messaging aimed at voters in general and targeted content aimed at specific groups within that universe. That way, they still have a chance to reach people who might have fallen through the data cracks, while doubling up on those most likely to respond to a tailored appeal. They just need to make sure they don’t get so tied up reaching small slices of the public that they leave average voters wondering what the candidate stands for.
Ironically, even if 2022’s cash flood removes some of the financial imperative to microtarget online, it should lead to more digitally targeted advertising this year overall. If campaigns are flush with money, at least some of it should slosh over onto the internet. After all, how much is the 1,000th ad on a voter’s TV screen really going to matter?
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-five-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.