Study Estimates Up to Half of Digital Ad Spend Was Wasted Targeting Early Voters During the Midterms

More nuanced audience segments need advanced technical solutions built into DSPs

Failing to include early voters in audience segment targeting could have led to nearly $1.5 billion wasted in digital ad spend (including CTV) this midterm election, surpassing previous midterm election cycles, according to estimates by performance marketing company Stirista.

The 2022 key voter analysis from Stirista found 65% of the total U.S. midterm votes were cast by early voters, or 72 million votes, either through ballot requests or confirmed early voting, out of a total of 111 million voters. The company found this was a 92% increase in early votes from the 2018 midterm election cycle. Stirista forecasts that more than 50% of digital advertising dollars for a political candidate or cause could have been wasted if known early voters were included in audience segment targeting. Elsewhere, data software firm TargetSmart pegs total early voters at 50 million, based on returns updated last week.

“As a political marketer working for a campaign or through an agency, early voter consideration is now a must in terms of driving results and decreasing wasted digital ad spend,” said Blaine Britten, svp of data strategy at Stirista.

This problem is even more pronounced in mediums with less efficient targeting like broadcast

Mark Jablonowski, DSPolitical

The 2022 elections saw a staggering $9 billion spend on political ads, according to analytics company AdImpact. While the largest political spenders have more resources to include early voting data in their targeting, it’s easier said than done, industry sources told Adweek.

“The inefficient spend comes from the long tail of down-ballot campaigns that lack the ability to reach early voters,” said Reid Vineis, vp of digital at Majority Strategies, a Republican political ad firm.

Stirista gathered this data set from government records and public voter registration. The analysis is from projected ad spend and marketing-related reactions rather than political polling.

Meanwhile, actual ad dollar spend and voting numbers are yet to be finalized. And some question Stirista’s study, suggesting the numbers appear to be inflated.

It’s highly improbable that 50% of digital ad budgets could conceivably have been delivered to voters who had already cast an early vote,” said Grace Briscoe, svp of candidates and causes, Basis Technologies. “$1.5 billion is likely the entire amount spent on digital political ads in the final 30 days.”

Britten added that the $1.5 billion was a conservative estimation across multiple channels.

Still, eliminating early voters from audience segmentation remains a concern.

Nuanced targeting needs advanced DSPs

Election cycles are unique in that they are a one-time campaign compared to advertising activity for retail brands, for instance, where the aim is to keep bringing people back to the store. If ad buyers can get data on people who have already voted, more ad dollars can go to people yet to cast a vote.

In political advertising, with a short window and limited funding, every impression counts, said Britten.

“As early voting continues to grow in popularity, and with millions of dollars earmarked for the Georgia Senate runoff and upcoming presidential primaries, further investment in critical voter data segmentation is needed,” Britten said.

Targeting nuanced audiences needs advanced technical solutions built into demand-side platforms to separate voters who have already cast their ballots from a target audience, said Mark Jablonowski, managing partner and chief technology officer of DSPolitical.

As a practice, campaigns should work with vendors who can scrub targeted voter audiences in real-time to ensure maximized ad spend.

“It’s worth noting that this problem is even more pronounced in mediums with less efficient targeting like broadcast,” he said.

Democratic ad dollars were better spent

Early voter files acquired by Stirista in October saw that more Democrats opted to vote early.

“As a result, democratic ad dollars were likely better spent because they were able to effectively focus on those early voters,” said Britten.

Of the people who voted early, more than half (55%) were unaffiliated voters; 25% from Democrats, and 18.50% from Republicans. This data was extrapolated from third-party affiliations, such as Libertarians.

“Powerful voter demographics coupled with donation history, political affiliation, and early voter data can lift a campaign’s message to the right audience and can shift the voting equation,” added Britten. 

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