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Political Advertising Goes Big in 2018 Midterms

The 2018 midterm elections are remarkable for many reasons and advertising is chief among them. According to Williamsburg, VA-based media research firm Borrell Associates, total ad spend will hit record levels at nearly $9 billion, which represents an 8% increase over the last round in 2014. And given that Borrell keeps upping its estimates, those numbers are likely to climb as campaigns go into high gear over the next few weeks. In fact, AdAge reported that Ohio Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine and his supporters spent $14 million on TV and radio ads between September 18-26. Local races are being powered by a big influx of money from special interest groups and PACs, which is not surprising given the current political climate. What is interesting, is how the money is being allocated. Let’s take a look at some of the most pronounced trends.

TV Is Still the Frontrunner
TV is the biggest beneficiary of this ad bonanza and is expected to grab about 3.5% of the total pie, according to MediaPost. TV’s staying power is simple: Whether it’s on the local or the national level, it’s all about reach. According to this Nielsen report, TV ads reach 87% of people over 18, which no other single medium comes close to. And while it’s been widely acknowledged that political TV ads don’t do much to influence on-the-fence voters or change people’s minds, they are critical for building awareness and name recognition—particularly for lesser-known candidates. But targeting “likely voters” is the issue most campaigners care most about and while TV is making inroads in the targeting department, digital is another matter and one that is pushing campaigns to explore cross-screen marketing more than ever before.

Digital Is the Stealth Candidate and Social Is Key
While local television is pretty much de rigueur for building awareness, candidates are flocking to digital for purposes of persuasion. And they are doing it in droves. This cycle, nearly $1.9 billion (22%) is expected to be spent on digital and online political ads, according to Borrell. In 2014, digital ads made up less than 1 percent — or $71 million — of political ad spending. That represents a stunning 2,539% increase from four years ago. The growth comes in large part because platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google offer ad buyers lower prices matched with the heightened ability to pinpoint specific demographics.

“The concept of being able to target and send a message to a person no matter where they are, no matter what they’re doing, through their mobile device is one that, if it works, would be the Philosopher’s Stone in political advertising,” said Kip Cassino of Borrell. Borrell estimates about 60% of every digital ad dollar goes toward social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram.

Programmatic Buys Exploding
Campaigns are leaning in hard on programmatic buys for campaigns. eMarketer reported on a study by digital advertising firm Centro that found 75% of digital marketers said programmatic would be a key component of their midterm strategies. And while brand safety and fake news issues have seemingly dominated trade stories focused on programmatic, a minority of the respondents expressed concern. They were more focused on the targeting possibilities associated with programmatic—such as geo-fencing, cross-device targeting and connected TV. The enthusiasm for programmatic is not surprising. Research has shown that precisely targeted ads are an effective conversion tool when aimed at likely voters who’ve demonstrated an interest in either the candidate or the issues that candidate is supporting. The pricing efficiencies and scale associated with programmatic are appealing as well.

Television will always be a central component of any political campaign, but digital is providing exciting new avenues through which candidates can communicate more directly with constituents. Add advertising to the many reasons this year’s midterms will be one for the history books.