Digital Spend in Midterm Elections Trumped by TV

Expecting an online advertising windfall driven by the heated midterm election races? There’s a better chance of President Barack Obama joining former Alaska governor Sarah Palin on a bear-hunting trip.

Following the recent digital-savvy campaigns led by Obama and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, many expected a slew of imitators to emerge during the 2010 midterms, leading to a surge in online spending. But political ad insiders say that with the exception of a handful of digital-focused campaigns, few candidates are dumping dollars onto the Web, outside of social media and search. And with six weeks or so to go before Election Day, not many watchers are expecting a sudden surge.

According to Borrell & Associates, political spending on digital media should double this year vs. 2008, reaching $44.5 million. Despite that hefty growth rate, “that’s really not much,” said Kip Cassino, Borrell’s vp of research. Some estimates place digital spending at 1 percent of total political media dollars. “There’s more of it, but it’s still a fraction,” said Evan Tracey, president, campaign media analysis group, Kantar Media.

“Spending has just not developed this year,” said Ted Utz, managing director of the local rep firm Petry Digital. Utz said his company works with around 10 top political ad agencies. “They are staffed up and poised to place digital money, and it’s been really anemic. [Media plans are] just sitting there.”

Perhaps the biggest factor holding back digital spending is political consultants’ love affair with TV, which, according to Cassino, gets two of every three dollars spent in this arena. TV has a long track record of getting people elected, particularly in local congressional races, where a candidate might be running “for the 10th or 11th term,” said Cassino. “So they hand digital planning to the kid who comes in as a volunteer.”

Also, while consultants recognize the Web’s fund-raising power, many still aren’t buying the idea that banner ads drive votes.

This year, ascendant Republicans are flush with cash (an estimated $300 million, according to Time.com). So why not spend big on TV and use the Web for its free communications platforms (witness Sen. John McCain and his 1.7 million Twitter followers)?

In addition, political campaigns are perhaps even more risk-averse than traditional advertisers. “Nobody wants to be that campaign that goes big online and loses,” said Rena Shapiro, director, political & issue advocacy accounts, AOL Advertising.

There may be good reasons to avoid risk, since there is so little research on the impact of digital ads on voters, argues Michael Bassik, svp, digital strategy, Global Strategy Group, which recently helped Connecticut Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy score a primary victory. “Consultants are not in the wrong to say, ‘I’m not sure this works,’” he said.

Last week, GSG released research conducted on behalf of California Attorney General candidate Chris Kelly that showed a lift in respondents’ likelihood to vote if they’ve been exposed to both TV and Web ads. “But these guys need more than one study,” said Bassik.

Still, just a few years ago, getting candidates to even think about the Internet was “like pulling teeth,” Bassik said. Today, Google search ads are one of the first places candidates spend, with locally targeted Facebook self serve ads becoming a staple. “That is a milestone,” he said. According to Google Political Ads account executive Andrew Roos, the number of candidates buying search ads this year has ballooned by 800 percent versus 2008.

The digital space of late has witnessed some Scott Brown–type innovation. A few weeks ago,  Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) geo-targeted voters attending the state fair via their cell phones. Last week, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) blanketed the Google Content Network in his state––a tactic he called the Cheddar Bomb.