Here’s Why Smartphone Ads Could Help Swing the Iowa Caucuses

Data every campaign strategist needs to see

Poor Iowa. Quadrennially, it's the Midwestern state that gets most bombarded with political ads, with Republican and Democratic voters being the prime targets of presidential campaigns ahead of next week's caucuses.

As the 2016 race for the White House continues, the most expensive race in history is still a boon for television air time. But a new national survey of likely voters by Rubicon Project found that the shift to digital should no longer be ignored—and campaigns that pay attention could be rewarded at the polls.

"This is the first election where having effective mobile engagement really moves from a nice-to-have to a must-have," said Dallas Lawrence, svp at Rubicon Project. "It was nice to have in 2012, it was nice to have in 2014, but it really is a must-have in 2016. What this means is this really becomes the year that media buyers move off of autopilot when it comes to developing the right media mix to reach voters today."

Rubicon Project used polling firm Penn Schoen Berland to conduct interviews with 1,500 likely voters—600 Democrats, 500 Republicans and 400 Independents—in the 2016 presidential general election.

Of the $10 billion expected to be spent this election cycle, about $1 billion will be spent on digital advertising. Lawrence said digital dollars represent the next battlefront after the "air war" becomes a draw due to finite TV inventory.

Here's what Rubicon Project's study found:

Mobile matters

Nearly one-third of likely voters were able to recall seeing a specific commercial this cycle. Around 36 percent of those who have seen a political ad said they've taken action like clicking through content or providing an email address after seeing such an ad. Engagement was twice as strong for digital ads—64 percent of those who watched a digital political ad on a mobile device said they took action.

"Really, what voters are saying is 'If you reach me with a message I care about at a time that works for me on the right platform, I am significantly more likely to engage and be open to your messaging," Lawrence said.

The survey also found that mobile gamers are a ready audience. Nearly half of all voters reported playing games on their phones or tablets on a weekly basis, with one in four independent voters playing games daily. According to a Nielsen study of people playing games created by Zynga, around 90 percent said they're registered to vote—and plan to vote—this fall. (Zynga and Rubicon Project recently began offering native gaming ads for politician campaigns with programmatic capabilities.)

"I didn't really realize how prevalent gaming has become in the mainstream," Lawrence said. "Gaming matters."

TV is dormant, not dead

About half of all likely voters reported using DVR to watch TV, with two-thirds of those skipping commercials either all of the time or most of the time. Rubicon Project also found that independent voters are more likely than Democrats or Republicans to disengage from TV in favor of spending more time on mobile.

Lawrence said the biggest shift campaigns need to make is moving away from buying demographics and toward buying direct voter engagement. He said media campaign strategists have shifted very little in the past 40 years and still focus on broad negative or positive ads.

"Are we ready to jettison the primary campaign tactic that's been used since Kennedy for a new type of campaign?" Lawrence said. "I mean, we don't do anything today the way we used to in 1960 except for the way we run our campaigns."

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