How Data and Programmatic TV Will Dominate the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Analytics companies already optimizing ad buys

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Already sick of hearing about data, the big buzzword during this year's upfronts? Bad news: The incessant upfront chatter was just the beginning, as data blending and programmatic TV buying also looks to dominate the 2016 presidential campaign.

There will be a projected $4.4 billion in TV ad spending for all 2016 elections (compared with $3.8 billion in 2012). With 17 Republican candidates already in the running and Thursday's first Republican presidential debate just days away, the ad buys have already begun, both nationally and in the early primary states.

The crowded field is giving Republican strategists an early chance to prove they've learned their lessons from the 2012 campaign. "You saw the Obama campaign pioneering a lot of the work and scale in this space. Republican consultants, targeters and analytics folks came out of that and said, 'We've got to learn and adapt those lessons,'" said Brent McGoldrick, CEO of Deep Root Analytics, a media analytics company formed in response to that 2012 loss. "For the first time on the Republican side, in 2016, you're going to see this type of data blending informing media targeting on the right."

Launched in 2013, Deep Root Analytics is one of a handful of media analytics companies that several presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, are already leaning on. It partners with data-blending and advanced-analytics company Alteryx to merge voter file information, set-top box data and commercial data to optimize audience targeting and TV ad-space buying.

"Depending upon where the campaign is running, there could be anywhere from eight to 10 different data sources that we need to match against those voter files in order to better enhance that targeting and be able to create custom ratings about where you should be placing your buy," said McGoldrick. These political media analytics companies also work to "provide situational awareness as to how the other campaigns that may be advertising in that market are also doing that."

Prior to its presidential campaign involvement, Deep Root Analytics assisted on the 2014 re-election campaigns for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. When they joined McConnell's campaign halfway through, their analytics pushed his media buy from 18 cable channels to 34. "So, you have almost doubling of local cable, which ends up being a big winner in these kinds of analytics, often at the expense of local broadcasts," said McGoldrick.

With such cutthroat competition, such analytics will be essential as the Republican candidates look to separate themselves from the very large herd. "While you might not have 17 people up on the air in every market for six or seven months, you're going to have four or five who are up there, so finding those efficiencies becomes that much more important," said McGoldrick. "It puts a premium on multisourced data platforms to be able to provide those sorts of analytics."

At the same time, the primaries will also give analytics companies plenty of hands-on experience leading up to the general election. "Because we have a competitive primary with multiple candidates, there are going to be a lot of scenarios with actual voters voting where we can test what works or doesn't work," said David Seawright, Deep Root's director of analytics and product innovation. "That will hopefully give us a leg up going into the general election."

Seawright noted a "significant overlap between the presidential and Senate map this cycle," with races in key states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, making ad buys challenging in those markets. "All of [those] traditional spaces are going to be clogged," said Seawright. "To use a primary example, Fox News will be backed up in terms of inventory. Everyone is going to be buying there."

That will make finding alternate spaces, like local news on broadcast TV, all the more important. "The campaigns that have the technology behind them to target and say, 'Here are other places we can go where our opponents are or that aren't being purchased or that are cheaper,' will be a great strategic advantage," said Seawright.

This could all spell bad news in the coming 15 months for viewers who hate political ads and will only find it harder than ever to keep them at arm's length. "Now, the male in the Raleigh-Durham market who wanted to watch TV at 10 p.m. and relax and avoid political ads is going to get a rude awakening," said McGoldrick.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.