The money that fuels political campaigns is often fodder for news reports. But when it comes to campaign cash spent online, well--that's a different story. Political ad spending in the current cycle is expected to cross the $1 billion mark by the November elections. However, because online spending is not subject to political ad regulations, Internet ad money is tough to follow.
"It's a stealth medium at this point," says Michael Cornfield, research director at George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet, and author of the soon-to-be-released book "Politics Moves Online."
Data tracked by Nielsen//NetRatings' AdRelevance and obtained by MediaPost's MediaDailyNews sheds some light on the otherwise dim political Web ad spending picture. The media measurement firm bases online ad spending estimates on impressions and non-negotiated rate card CPMs. According to AdRelevance information, political candidates spent a total of about $300,000 in online ad placements during the entire fourth quarter of 2003.
The Edwards for President campaign topped candidate spending online, with more than $120,000 going toward ads on the Washington Post Co.'s washingtonpost.com, the New York Times Co.'s nyt.com, MSN, and other sites. John Kerry for President plunked down $22,000 on myriad sites, the majority going toward ads on The Onion, WebShots, MileSource.com, AnyWho, and BlackPlanet.com. Other placements on niche sites like SoapOperaFan and Billboard Online indicate audience-targeting savvy. The Kerry campaign spent only $400 on CNN Money in January 2004, while the Edwards campaign had no online ad spending last month.
The Dean for America campaign displayed a shift in strategy during the fourth quarter of last year. Compared to the previous quarter, when $67,300 went mainly toward ads on MSNBC, just $2,200 was earmarked for ads on Yahoo! GeoCities, VegSource, SoapZone, Recipezaar, The Christian Science Monitor, and Kaboose Network Kids Domain in the fourth quarter. The campaign boosted the bucks a bit in January when $6,000 bought placements on SoapZone and Recipezaar.
The Kucinich for President Committee also increased online ad dollars dramatically in January. In contrast to a meager $300 buy on Yahoo! GeoCities in all of fourth quarter 2003, the campaign spent $3,900 on DesMoinesRegister.com and Beliefnet last month.
Candidates running for state and local offices are moving online, too. Take Blair Hull, for example. The democratic candidate from Illinois running for U.S. Senate dropped over $70,000 on Chicago Sun-Times and CNN Web site ads in fourth quarter 2003, and an additional $22,400 on online ads in January. Another relatively big Web spender is Matt Gonzales, candidate for Mayor of San Francisco, who spent $19,500 on SFGate.com and Weather Underground ads last month.
Let's not forget the true drivers of political action: issue advocacy groups. As tracked by AdRelevance, the little known but evidently well- funded States' Liberty Party (not to be confused with the Libertarian Party) spent more than $695,000 in fourth quarter 2003 and another $408,800 in January on ads that ran exclusively on NewsMax.com. Other issue organizations running online ads include the National Rifle Association ($7,500 during fourth quarter 2003 and January 2004), Californians Against the Costly Recall of the Governor (over $19,000 in Q4 2003 on Spanish language site, Univision.com), and Citizens for Tax Repeal ($18,000 in fourth quarter 2003 on Cincinnati.com).
Nick Nyhan, president of cross-media research company Dynamic Logic, believes that special interest groups will continue to run online ads after the election. "There's a lot of advocacy business that exists all the time," affirms Nyhan.
It's important to note that these numbers are estimates based on established rate card prices, and do not factor in negotiated deals, spends for sponsored search listings, or placements on some smaller sites.
All in all, when compared to the more than $13 million spent by the federal government on Internet ads in fourth quarter 2003 (mainly for the armed forces and TreasuryDirect), or the nearly $89 million spent on Web ads by auto manufacturers during that quarter, political online ad expenditures are less than impressive. Once there's a big success story to tell, predicts George Washington University's Cornfield, "the numbers will go from the thousands into the high hundreds of thousands, and maybe into the millions."
However, right now, he adds: "This is chump change. They spend more on yard signs than they do online."