Political Consulting | What Digital Spending Can Tell Us About The 2012 Presidential Elections
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What Digital Spending Can Tell Us About The 2012 Presidential Elections

What Digital Spending Can Tell Us About The 2012 Presidential Elections

While pundits and experts are spouting a thousand and one reasons why the 2012 presidential race panned out the way it did, looking at how digital media was used by the two major party candidates goes a long way towards explaining why things went they way they did this time around.

We live in a digital millennium and those who ignore that fact when marketing will pay the price. In politics, this is especially true as the goal of any campaign is to raise both awareness and grassroots interest (what traditional marketers would call “word of mouth”).

The Republicans and Democrats spent a total of about two and a half billion dollars ($2.5B) between them and their various support groups for the 2012 election cycle. Just for the presidential campaigns. Of that, about $1.4B was raised by the campaigns themselves. Of that $1.4B, only $78 million or so was spent on online advertising. Not even half of one percent of the total money raised.

Yet that $78M is, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) numbers for both 2008 and 2012, a 251 percent increase in online ad spending. That’s not insignificant.

Now for the nitty-gritty here. The two major party campaigns, Obama and Romney, spent that $78M together, but it was anything but even. The ultimate winner, President Obama, spent $52M of that $78M total. He spent roughly twice what Romney did and about two thirds of the total online spending overall. While it may not be cause-effect, it’s interesting to note that he won about 2/3 of the electoral votes (303) and it appears that Obama will also retain the popular vote, though not by nearly the same margin. These numbers do not include Florida, which has yet (as of this writing) to declare an official vote count.

Another telling point is to note how that online marketing spending was made. The Obama campaign began spending in January of 2012 and then spend relatively steadily, peaking in July and then tapering down to January levels by Election Day. Romney’s campaign, on the other hand, spent very little until July and August, when it peaked markedly and then dropped off and then peaked again in October leading up to November 6.

In my opinion, the Obama campaign took the better tactic with the longer-term approach leading up to the Republican primaries (and the emerging winner). This went a long way towards “branding” Obama further and probably countered many of the attempts by the Republicans later on to paint him in a different light. Romney made a critical mistake, in my view, by doing little online campaigning until after the GOP convention. He had the money to do it, so he would have been much better off starting his branding as early as possible.

Finally, a failure both campaigns managed this time around was to capture search engine rankings outside of their respective candidate’s names. Although “Barack Obama” and “Mitt Romney” both ranked very high for their campaign websites, on critical campaign issues like “economy”, “budget”, “taxes on rich” ñ all key talking points for 2012 ñ neither campaign managed a first page Google ranking.

In fact, in moves reflecting the overall tone of the 2012 presidential campaigns, much of the online ad spending appears to have been in the Reputation Management (specifically the “torpedo effect”) arena, bidding on terms for search engine advertising. Most of this bidding centered on attempts to usurp the term from the opposition ñ i.e. “torpedo” their brand.

In all, the campaigns and their online spending says a lot about the elections overall. Republicans should note the way Obama’s campaign used the digital marketplace to promote themselves. In my opinion, the Romney campaign largely failed in this arena and it likely contributed in no small way to their ultimate loss this week.

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