Midterm Campaigns Make Billion-Dollar Blunder

While the upcoming midterm elections are likely to deliver their share of surprises, here’s one thing we know for sure: Political campaigns, on both sides of the aisle, still have a long way to go when it comes to taking advantage of the increasingly sophisticated digital tools at their disposal.

Consider  the case of two very different politicians and their surprisingly similar usage of Facebook.

According to press reports, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is hoping to unseat Ted Cruz in Texas, has spent more than $5 million on Facebook ads this campaign cycle, tenfold more than his opponent.

Not to be outdone, $5 million has also been spent on Donald Trump’s Facebook page, paid for by various political action committees advocating for the president’s agenda.

These are large sums of money. And, most likely, they were wasted without ever reaching their target audience.

To understand why, consider the story of Kathy Szeliga, who, earlier this year, won the Republican Party’s primary and is now seeking election to the Maryland House of Delegates.



Like many candidates, Szeliga relied heavily on Facebook, mainly because of its affordability: While it costs a campaign $32 to reach 1,000 newspaper readers and $7 to reach 1,000 cable TV viewers, the cost of reaching 1,000 Facebook users is an attractive 25 cents.

Facebook also offers geo-targeting, focusing  on voters in particular Zip codes; demographic targeting, zooming in on certain age or gender groups; and behavioral targeting, addressing  potential voters who expressed an interest in a certain issue by reading several news stories pertaining to that issue.

But according to data analyzed by Hines Digital, things didn’t go so well for Szeliga. She won the primary, but her digital campaigning strategy proved inefficient, to say the least. Why? The numbers speak for themselves.

According to the 2015 Census data, there were 6 million people living in Maryland, of which 22.6% were under the age of 18, leaving us with about 4.7 million eligible voters who could see Szeliga’s ad on Facebook. This, of course, is already somewhat of a faulty premise—it assumes every adult in Maryland has access to Facebook.

But take a deeper dive, and things soon become disconcerting: There are only 631,632 registered Republicans in Maryland, which means that only 10.5% of the people Szeliga targeted in her statewide ads were actually eligible to vote in the primary. Or, put another way, 90%  of the money the candidate had spent on Facebook was wasted on voters who could not support her.

This is not Szeliga’s problem alone. Nor is it limited exclusively to Facebook.

With $1.8 billion spent this election cycle on digital advertising, according to Borrell Associates, it’s understood by analysts that 70% or 80% of that enormous sum is targeting the wrong people. That’s well over $1 billion down the drain.

It hardly takes a data scientist to see why: Elections are decided by people who vote, which is why the key to a successful campaign isn’t spending more robustly, but spending more wisely by targeting precisely the right people.

The technology to do precisely that already exists, but our political culture, slow to change, puts up with wasteful and ineffective practices.

And so, while we may have a long way ahead of us on the road to reforming our fractured politics, we can make a big dent by reforming our failing campaign technologies.

Success would mean more than just significant savings: Given the ability to target precisely the right voters, candidates would be rewarded not for pursuing controversial wedge issues that dial up the animosity, but speaking calmly and rationally to a small but decisive group of voters waiting to be persuaded on any number of issues.

Given the frantic pace of American politics, the next campaign cycle, the one preparing for 2020, would most likely start the day after the midterms. Let’s hope that candidates use the time to take their campaign technology into the 21st century.
2 comments about "Midterm Campaigns Make Billion-Dollar Blunder".
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  1. Gordon Borrell from Borrell Associates, October 31, 2018 at 11:21 a.m.

    I don't know whether FB advertising is ineffective or not, I really don't. But couldn't you make the same argument about "wasted" advertising via any medium?  A certain percentage of Baltimore Sun readers or WBAL-TV viewers would also have been ineligible to vote in the GOP primary, and thus some of that advertising would be wasted as well.  Also, if you do the math, a $32 CPM ad in the Baltimore Sun would reach about 400,000 adult readers at a cost of $13,000, while an ad on Facebook at $0.25 CPM targeted to 400,000 adults would cost.... $101.  It's kinda hard to pit one against the other when the CPM is 128x.   

  2. Bhargav Patel from IQM replied, April 17, 2019 at 10:49 a.m.

    Hi Gordon,
    Apologies for not seeing this, but thanks for the thoughtful response. I'd love to connect sometime to discuss. My email is

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