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Also inside: Youngkin goes big in first general election ads
Welcome to 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.
With less than two weeks until the June 8th Democratic primary, candidates for Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General are barnstorming the commonwealth in-person, on the air, and online. While much of the attention has focused on the race for Governor, the race for Lt. Governor remains far more unsettled, with two nominal frontrunners but a wide open race for the nomination. How are the candidates for #VALG reaching voters online and on air? And what appeals are candidates making in the closing stretch? 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:
The story in #VAGov is the same as it has been all cycle – McAuliffe continues to greatly outspend the field online and is on track to cross $1 million in digital ad spending on Facebook and Google in the next week.
Notably, while Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin continued to go dark on Facebook and Google, his campaign did place its first ad buys of the general election, reserving over $500k on TV and radio for the week of 5/25-5/31.
In #VALG, digital ad spending has stayed relatively constant, as Rasoul continues to spend the most of any candidate on Facebook and Google. However, Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan leapfrogged Sean Perryman in spending this week, becoming the 2nd highest weekly spender on Facebook and Google for the first time in the primary.
For the first time this cycle, incumbent Mark Herring outspent his primary challenger, Del. Jay Jones, on Facebook and Google ads. While his spending on Google’s platform remains limited to search ads, his team launched video and static ads on Facebook this week featuring his prominent endorsers as they talk up Herring’s accomplishments as Attorney General.
The race for 2nd in line
Of all the statewide Democratic primaries this year, the race for the Lt. Governor nomination has perhaps been the most contested, with a large field of potentially viable candidates. While statewide polling has been sparse, the most recent poll of the primary from Christopher Newport University, conducted between April 11-20, showed that a whopping 64% of likely Democratic primary voters were undecided.
However, Del. Sam Rasoul appeared to break through somewhat, coming first in the poll with 12% support. Meanwhile, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, who has since dropped out, came in second with 4% support, while the rest of the candidates failed to break 2% support. That said, this poll is over a month old, and with no public polling since, this race could be anyone’s game.
Whoever wins the Lt. Gov nomination on June 8th will go up against GOP nominee Winsome Sears in the general election. Sears, a former State Delegate from 2002-2004, shocked presumed frontrunners Dels. Tim Hugo and Glenn Davis at the convention, winning the nomination despite not holding elected office for over 16 years. Sears is easily the most conservative statewide nominee this cycle, and her website accuses Democrats of supporting infanticide, claims that gun ownership reduces crime, and leans into the Big Lie by supporting “ballot box integrity” policies that would drastically reduce access to voting.
Sears’ campaign also ran some of the most bizarre ads of the GOP primary (and trust us, that’s quite the accomplishment), including one ad that features Sears on the beach arguing with a cardboard cutout of Ralph Northam about Virginia’s mask mandate.
In a downballot statewide primary where none of the candidates have held statewide office before, the major challenge that all of the candidates face is building name ID with Democratic primary voters. While there’s plenty of ways to get a candidate’s name in front of voters, one of the most cost-effective and easily scalable modes is paid digital ads. Here’s how the Lt. Gov candidates’ YTD spending on Facebook and Google ads stack up:
It shouldn’t be any surprise to readers of the newsletter, but Del. Sam Rasoul has the largest digital operation by far – his campaign started investing early and often on Facebook and Google, spending over 3x on the platforms as the rest of the field combined. Another frontrunner for the nomination, Del. Hala Ayala, who recently picked up the endorsements of Gov. Ralph Northam and Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, has barely had any presence on paid digital ads at all.
That said, digital ads aren’t the only way for candidates to reach voters online! It’s increasingly difficult for organic content to break through in users’ Facebook feeds, but it’s still possible and it’s still a free way for campaigns to communicate their messages. Here’s how each candidates’ online followings on major social media platforms stack up:
Fairfax County NAACP President Sean Perryman has the largest total following across all social media platforms, with most of his following coming from Twitter. While Twitter can be useful for fundraising + channeling activists towards volunteering, the nature of the platform makes it difficult for candidates to reach typical, not hyper-online voters that make up the vast majority of the primary electorate.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Del. Sam Rasoul’s relatively large digital budget has allowed his team to run a mix of ads introducing himself to voters, touting his national + local endorsements, and pitching his main policy proposals. Notably, it looks like Rasoul’s digital team is maximizing the value of their endorsements by running hyper-localized ads touting endorsements from Delegates and Senators in their respective districts, tying himself to popular local electeds.
Rasoul’s campaign has handily outraised the rest of the field for Lt. Gov, allowing his campaign to get on the air with their second TV ad which is airing in the Richmond and Northern Virginia media markets.
Sean Perryman’s campaign is also taking a similar tact as Rasoul, boosting his endorsements from local elected + faith leaders while also running introductory bio ads to introduce himself to voters.
Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan’s path to victory relies heavily on consolidating support in her local Hampton Roads area as the only candidate from the region, and it’s a common theme throughout her digital + TV ads. Her ads specifically highlight that she’s the only candidate from Hampton Roads and highlight her local endorsements from Congresswoman Elaine Luria and Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander – her team is also up on TV in the Hampton Roads and Richmond media markets, with the version in the Hampton Roads market also referencing her local roots.
Rounding out the field of viable candidates are Dels. Mark Levine and Hala Ayala, both of whom have very small digital programs primarily focused on donor acquisition ads. With just 13 days to go, however, both of these candidates should look to invest more in digital to boost their name ID with voters before they head to the ballot box.
We’re less than two weeks out from the primary, and the Lt. Gov race is anyone’s game. Although some candidates have managed to stand out in terms of endorsements and fundraising, downballot statewide primaries often produce surprising results, especially with so many undecided voters this late in the game. While digital isn’t the only way for candidates to introduce themselves to voters across the commonwealth, some candidates have clearly prioritized reaching voters online more than others – we’ll see whether or not that bet pays off when the results come in on June 8th.
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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