2012 Election Gets a Little Closer on the Digital Front

Romney campaign narrows the gap in display ad impressions

For those looking at the 2012 election through a digital lens, there was plenty to talk about last week. A Pew Research Center study making the rounds among media outlets alleged that the Obama campaign would be heading into the election with a “distinct advantage” over Romney in digital communications strategy.

One day later Republican digital strategist Vincent Harris countered the Pew study via an op-ed on BuzzFeed claiming the digital race is far more nuanced and actually much closer than journalists and even analysts realize. This week, the discussion continues via some new comScore data showing that the gap in the display advertising game—while still wide—is shrinking.

According to comScore vp of industry analysis Andrew Lipsman, “July saw a significant narrowing of the gap as the Obama campaign pulled back to 921 million ads while Romney doubled its previous month total to 350 million impressions.” Just one month prior, the Obama campaign hit a peak of 1.2 billion impressions for June, with the Romney campaign delivering only 174 million. So while the disparity is still considerable, July’s numbers mark a significant departure from the norm.

But do those numbers actually mean anything in a race awash in Super PAC TV money? Display impressions are only one measure of a particular mode of online advertising. But with the homestretch rapidly approaching, experts are picking apart every facet of the race to gain some morsel of insight as to who will occupy the White House next year. And while any increased visibility is certainly a good thing for the Romney camp, does this narrowing of the gap mean anything substantial for the Republican hopeful?

Probably not. The first reason being that display ads are comparatively less likely to move voters to hit the polls compared to outlets like TV. “Display advertising functions on a very factual level,” Lipsman said. “TV is good at persuading people based on emotion, but there is a better ability to target a message online and speak directly to certain constituencies.”

For the Romney side, experts like Lipsman anticipate display ad impressions to grow as the election draws closer, but the Obama numbers are less certain. The drop off in July may have been due to an unprecedented June in which the campaign sought to make an end-of-quarter fundraising push. Also possible is that Obama's team is looking to beef up its TV ad presence during the last few months, and is thus reallocating ad dollars.

Yet, as Harris notes in his aforementioned op-ed, the digital campaign game is nuanced and mostly hidden from the public eye. While a narrowing of the display impressions gap may feel like an inconsequential victory, a substantial online ad push from the Romney campaign could have important consequences for the election that go largely unnoticed until Nov. 6.