From FWIW Virginia:
Also inside: the latest polling on extraterrestrial threats to Virginia
Welcome to the newly re-launched FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in the 2021 Virginia statewide and legislative elections. Each week, we look at how campaigns are investing in digital engagement and the online tactics they use to reach voters across the Commonwealth. Was this email forwarded to you? Click here to subscribe.
After a messy convention and a prolonged counting process, Virginia Republicans are finally pivoting towards the general election. Gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin finally admitted that “of course” Joe Biden was elected legitimately, after dodging the question throughout the entire primary campaign, and Sen. Amanda Chase came out in support of Youngkin and passed on running as an independent.
All three Republican statewide nominees have gone mostly dark on Facebook and Google since winning the nomination as they focus on consolidating party support and preparing for the general, ceding the spotlight to the closing weeks of the Democratic statewide primaries. How are Democratic candidates investing in paid digital ads in the closing weeks of their primary? And how are candidates gearing up for their closing pitch to voters? We take a look in this week’s edition of #FWIWVA.
2021 by the Numbers
After the Democratic primaries wrap in early June, we’ll be tracking cumulative and weekly digital spending in competitive elections for the House of Delegates and statewide offices. In the meantime, we’ll be sharing numbers from specific races and keeping an eye on the Democratic primary week over week.
FWIW, here’s how much the Democratic candidates for Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General have spent on Facebook and Google ads this week and in total year-to-date:
In the race for #VAGov, the digital spending reflects the current state of the race. Since McAuliffe jumped in, it’s been difficult for any of the potential alternative candidates to gain much traction, with the McAuliffe fundraising machine outraising and outspending the rest of the field.
In the crowded field for Lt. Gov, Del. Sam Rasoul continues to dominate the field in paid digital ad spending – a huge advantage in a statewide primary where name ID is the name of the game. The other frontrunner, Del. Hala Ayala, is still nowhere to be found on paid digital, but underdogs Sean Perryman and Andria McClellan have continued to slowly ramp up their digital spend in recent weeks.
Finally, in his primary campaign against incumbent AG Mark Herring, Del. Jay Jones continues to outspend Herring on Facebook and Google, focused almost exclusively on positive and contrast persuasion video content. Meanwhile, Herring’s only digital spending is coming from limited Google search ads directing voters to his website. Focusing his attention offline, Herring put out a press release launching his campaign’s first TV ad, which also not-so-subtly boasted about his 20-point lead in the polls.
The Other #VAGOV Primary
Last week, we covered the GOP’s chaotic unassembled convention to select their statewide nominees, and with the dust finally settled, it’s time to take a look at how Democrats are gearing up their digital programs for the final weeks of the campaign.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe continues to drastically outspend the field on paid digital, allowing him to run aggressive persuasion and donor acquisition campaigns to consolidate primary voters behind him and build a small-dollar donor base to help fuel an expensive general election campaign.
For persuasion, McAuliffe is focusing on boosting positive earned media spots to voters on Facebook, highlighting a recent local TV news story about his plan to boost teacher pay in the commonwealth and another piece about his plan to invest in rural Virginia.
While McAuliffe’s persuasion-focused ads are being targeted at Virginia voters, McAuliffe is also running national donor acquisition ads to Democrats across the country, focusing on tying GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin to his controversial national supporters, like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. McAuliffe certainly has more than enough in the bank for the Democratic primary, but these new donors will be helpful for McAuliffe to outspend the deep-pocketed, self-funder Glenn Youngkin in the general election.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy has been the second-biggest spender on Facebook and Google in the Democratic primary, with her campaign also managing a mix of persuasion and donor acquisition in their digital ads. Her team’s creative is solid and features a good mix of static and video formats, although it’ll be hard for their creative to break through given the significantly larger reach of the McAuliffe campaign.
Carroll Foy’s paid digital ads started pivoting towards persuasion-focused creative around mid-April, running some static biographical ads to get Carroll Foy’s name and bio in lots of users’ feeds along with short, 6-second video ads that seem well-fit for the platform.
Like McAuliffe, who, in recent weeks, has consistently been one of the largest spenders on Google nationwide, Carroll Foy’s campaign is also investing on the platform, running 7 and 16 second YouTube pre-roll ads focused on healthcare, along with more straightforward paid search ads directing Google searches towards her campaign’s ActBlue page.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s campaign is also up on Facebook and Google, but her campaign is spending just a fraction of what McAuliffe and Carroll Foy are spending. That limited digital budget has forced McClellan’s digital operation to stay relatively simple, focusing almost exclusively on acquiring donors despite the primary being just weeks away. Her campaign did, however, launch their first broadcast TV ad this week.
The other two major candidates for Governor, Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee Carter have each spent a grand total of $0 on paid digital ads on Facebook and Google, leaving them at a huge disadvantage when it comes to reaching voters across the commonwealth. On the bright side, Carter won a recent poll on which candidate would be best at dealing with aliens, so he has that going for him.
At the end of the day, running paid digital ads on sites like Facebook and Google isn’t everything. Online and on the ground organizing is critical. Endorsements could still sway some groups of voters. Direct mail is (apparently) still a thing. TV ad spending certainly plays a role. But, especially for challengers to a well-known former Governor, using paid digital to raise money, chase ballots, and GOTV could be an efficient tool for mounting a late-game comeback. That said, McAuliffe’s overall spending advantage across every mode of communication, including digital, will make it hard for any of the alternatives to stage a real challenge in the final weeks of the primary.
Thanks for reading this week’s FWIW Virginia! We’re so excited to be back following these critical elections in the Commonwealth. If you enjoy reading this type of content each week, we hope you’ll support our work by clicking share and tweeting out this newsletter below! As always, email us with ideas of what you’d like us to dive into next.
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