Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have marked the route to the White House for more than a generation. But in 2016, the path to the presidency will run through new territory — your Facebook news feed.
As the race begins in earnest, the world’s largest social network is emerging as the single most important tool of the digital campaign, with contenders as different and disparate as Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson, Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, all investing in the platform already.
Thanks to powerful new features unveiled since the 2012 campaign, Facebook now offers a far more customized and sophisticated splicing of the American electorate. And, for the first time in presidential politics, it can serve up video to those thinly targeted sets of people.
That unprecedented combination is inching campaigns closer to the Holy Grail of political advertising: the emotional impact of television delivered at an almost atomized, individual level. It makes the old talk of micro-targeting soccer moms and NASCAR dads sound quaint.
“I can literally bring my voter file into Facebook and start to buy advertising off of that,” says Zac Moffatt, who was Mitt Romney’s digital director and whose firm now works for Rick Perry’s campaign and Scott Walker’s super PAC.
“We use Facebook more than any single tool,” says Wesley Donehue, a top digital strategist for Marco Rubio, speaking about both his political and corporate clients. “The level of targeting has gotten so sophisticated, allowing us to drive different messages to different audiences. I mean, the amount of content we’re pumping out on Facebook right now is just unbelievable.”
With 190 million American users, Facebook’s wealth of information about its members is unmatched: identity, age, gender, location, passions — much of which is coughed up voluntarily. But it doesn’t end there; Facebook has a far more complete picture of its members than even what they’ve typed in themselves. Through partnerships with big data firms, like Acxiom, the site layers on a trove of behavioral information, such as shopping habits.
What that means is that Facebook, with its reach across a huge swath of the U.S. electorate, can pinpoint individual voters at the most granular of levels. And that’s why campaigns are buying their way in, reshaping not only campaign budgets but how the political battle itself is fought and won.
“The secret is out,” says Alex Skatell, an influential GOP digital strategist who is not affiliated with any 2016 campaign. “Facebook is kind of the first place people go now.”
ALREADY, DIGITAL operatives are modeling the universes of likely Iowa caucus-goers and potential New Hampshire primary voters and uploading those models into Facebook. Then, they match them with Facebook profiles of actual voters in those states. (Strategists say match rates can run as high as 80 percent.) It’s a powerful feature — custom-designing the audience for your ads to coincide with the voter rolls — that didn’t exist four years ago.
“We are guaranteeing you will reach the right person at the right time and eliminate the waste that you might find in email marketing, certainly in TV advertising,” says Eric Laurence, who is in charge of political advertising on Facebook. “That’s really the power of Facebook targeting.”
The precision and price of such spots, to borrow a favorite Silicon Valley aphorism, threatens to disrupt the way campaigns are run, cutting down on inefficiencies and democratizing some of the data and targeting leaps pioneered by the Obama campaigns.
A statewide television buy in Iowa, for instance, reaches more than 3.1 million potential viewers. But only 121,000 people actually turned out at the Republican caucuses in 2012. So instead of blanketing the state, Facebook allows campaigns to target only those who they believe to be likely caucus-goers and then to fragment that universe further into a thousand smaller subsets. One ad could run to students at the University of Iowa and another to those at Iowa State. Or just alumni. Or female alumni. Or alumni who “like” Rush Limbaugh. In Des Moines.
“Think about how powerful this is. This is so, so powerful, and I honestly think it’s still underused,” says Vincent Harris, Paul’s chief digital strategist. “And it’s cheap. It’s so cheap. I am getting Facebook video views for one cent a view — one cent a view! … It’s a fundraising tool, it’s a persuasion tool, and it’s a [get-out-the-vote] tool. It’s a way to organize, too.”
“Facebook is actually everything,” Harris adds. “And this is what scares people.”
AT THIS PHASE, the campaigns are mostly mining Facebook for new donors.
“Any national campaign that we work with, we recommend Facebook advertising as part of acquisition strategy,” says Keegan Goudiss, a Democratic digital strategist whose firm, Revolution Messaging, is helping the Sanders team. Goudiss says prospecting for donors through Facebook typically pays three-to-one — that is, three dollars raised for every dollar invested, though the payout often can take as long as 12 months.
In a remarkable statistic Facebook likes to tout, the 2013 campaign of Terry McAuliffe for Virginia governor, run by Robby Mook, now Clinton’s campaign manager, immediately recovered a whopping 58 percent of its Facebook acquisition costs by linking new email subscribers to online contribution forms.
That kind of return on investment is why Clinton uses Facebook to promote a contest to meet her, Sanders asks people to endorse his platform, Paul touts a “filibuster starter pack,” and Ted Cruz searches there to sign up “courageous conservatives.”
Facebook won’t be the only digital behemoth that gets a revenue boost from political spending in 2015 and 2016. Google, one of Facebook’s chief rivals for campaign dollars, is expected to garner big sums, especially with its pre-roll ads on YouTube, inventory for which is already running low in Iowa and New Hampshire. A rising tide, after all, lifts all boats, and Forrester Research projects that total spending on digital ads — for all American advertisers, not necessarily those in politics — will overtake television in 2016. But when it comes to knowing its audience, campaign strategists say Facebook remains king. “You’re just not going to find that level of data with any other ad networks,” Skatell says.
Almost every major contender or their PAC has already bought Facebook ads this year. One reason is how precise campaigns can be. Paul’s team is trying to gather email addresses for potential Iowa voters. So the campaign is running Facebook ads “to people who we know are likely caucus-goers, who like Rand Paul’s page, for example, and whose email we don’t have,” Harris says.
Nationally, Paul recently ran a t-shirt design contest, and it garnered more than 10,000 votes, mostly through Facebook, and thus a treasure trove of data and email addresses for the campaign. “If you voted for the t-shirt that came in second, guess what, now you’re seeing an ad for that t-shirt, and people are buying it,” Harris says. The goal is to turn clicks into contributors. (The winning design reads, “The NSA knows I bought this Rand Paul t-shirt.” Ironically, the Paul campaign now knows if you clicked on it, voted for it, or bought it.)
There are new built-in Facebook tools that can help campaigns, too. Candidates can upload their databases of donor emails, find their corresponding profiles on the site, and ask Facebook to spit out ads to a “look-alike” universe of users whom they haven’t yet pitched for money. Or they can take the sign-ups from an event, upload them, and ask to advertise to people who look like them. While the best-funded campaigns will almost certainly do some of this modeling themselves, Facebook’s “look-alike” feature didn’t exist until 2013, and it promises to allow poorer campaigns to tap into sophisticated analytics on the cheap.
BY FAR THE BIGGEST development for 2016 is video. “Video advertising wasn’t around in the 2012 cycle,” says Goudiss. “That’s going to be huge in 2016.”
Facebook says users log about 4 billion video views every day. Already, campaigns have taken notice that Facebook’s algorithm has been pushing videos embedded on the site higher and higher in users’ newsfeeds. (Harris says Paul’s videos now get triple the interactions that more static posts get.)
“The explosion of video on Facebook, we believe, is going to be a huge driver for these candidates,” says Facebook’s Laurence.
In the past, campaigns chiefly used Facebook to build lists of their supporters and then to encourage those people to go to the polls. (Facebook ended the tool Obama leveraged to have people ask friends in swing states to vote.) But the advent of video turns the platform into a persuasion play that targets the critical pool of undecided voters.
“Facebook is actually everything,” Harris adds. “And this is what scares people.”
“Everybody agrees video is king. It makes the emotional connection,” Goudiss says. What’s more, he says, Facebook lets campaigns measure that connection with likes, shares, and comments in almost real time. “Unlike any other types of online video advertising, you really get to see how your audience is reacting to the content.”
Political operatives have long seen local newscasts as one of the most effective outlets for TV ads because viewers are ripe for persuasion as they consume the news. Increasingly, Facebook is such an outlet. In a recent Pew study, a whopping 61 percent of millennials said they keep up with politics via Facebook, making it their top news source. Even 39 percent of baby boomers are getting political news on the site (though local TV remains their top source).
Digital remains far from supplanting television’s supremacy in the ad budget, but it is an increasingly important supplement. “You might have an advertisement on TV to reach a broad amount of people, but your polling might say, ‘Hey, you’re still weak with this specific niche,’”‰” says Donehue, the Rubio strategist. “Well, that niche is too small to go up on TV, but it’s a perfect place for us to go and target on Facebook.”
“You’re basically able to treat video the way you were able to treat direct mail,” he says. Only better. “You can obviously measure it and see if people saw it, rather than just throw it in the trash.”
THE CAMPAIGNS ARE STILL figuring out how to tap into Facebook’s political potential. If, say, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow heaps praise on Sanders, should his campaign flood that clip to every voter in the country who likes Maddow on Facebook? Or, during debates, do campaigns repackage an opponent’s gun gaffe and send it to the site’s Second Amendment enthusiasts? Just imagine Romney’s “self-deportation” clip on autoplay in the Facebook feeds of Latinos in every swing state.
“The sky’s the limit,” Harris says.
Indeed. It includes the possibility of layering Facebook on top of traditional tools — hitting voters in their mailboxes, on TV, and on iPhones in coordinated fashion. It includes stealthier strategies that exploit the lack of regulations governing disclosure of who’s buying what in the digital-ad space. It includes achieving something no other advertising can — a veneer of authenticity when trusted friends are shown “liking” the politician paying for the ad.
These will be the keys for campaign messages breaking through in 2016. And they add up to one thing: “Facebook,” says Moffatt, “is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”