Presidential hopefuls spend big on digital ads; House candidates stick with TV

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Digital ad spending is reaching new heights during the 2018 election cycle, but in tight, contested congressional races, TV advertising is still king.

In total, Senate candidates have spent nearly $150 million on TV ads since May 31, compared to $17.5 million on Google and Facebook ads, according to a Wesleyan Media Project report — produced in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics — released last week.

On the House side, candidates in competitive races spent just $2.1 million on Facebook and Google, compared to $49 million on TV broadcasts.

Meanwhile, Senators who are expected to run for President in 2020 are purchasing online, out-of-state ads and bypassing TV ads entirely. More than half of the $11.5 million Senate candidates have spent on Facebook ads has come from potential presidential candidates, according to Google spending data obtained from the Google Transparency report and Facebook spending estimates from Pathmatics analyzed in the report.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has spent nearly $1.6 million on digital ads, including $1.4 million on Facebook, and none on TV ads. Similarly, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has completely avoided the airwaves, spending $937,200 almost entirely on Facebook ads.

Along with the digital push, most of the Senators expected to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 are spreading their Facebook ads across the country, rather than sticking within their home state. Just one percent of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) $369,500 in Facebook ads are targeted toward Vermont residents.

“A small percentage of spending in-state suggests that the candidate is more focused on building an email list and raising money in preparation for a presidential run than in running for re-election,” the report notes.

Meanwhile, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) seem focused on re-election, placing 71 and 82 percent of their Facebook advertising in Ohio and Minnesota, respectively.

Trump is already gearing up for re-election, having spent more than $5.8 million on digital ads, $4.4 million of which is on Facebook.

In the extremely-expensive Texas Senate race, incumbent Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and challenger Beto O’Rourke spent a combined $6.4 million on digital ads. O’Rourke has spent $5.6 million, accounting for 32 percent of his total ad spending, while 13.5 percent of Cruz’s ads are online.

In the Florida Senate race, Bill Nelson and Rick Scott are mostly relying on TV ads. Scott spent more than $28 million on TV ads and $1.6 million online, while Nelson put only three percent of his ad budget — $656,000 — toward online ads.

On average, Senate candidates spent 10.5 percent of their ad budget on Google and Facebook.

The biggest digital spender in a competitive House race is Josh Harder, shelling out $260,500 between Facebook and Google ads in pursuit of California’s 10th District. Both he and his opponent Rep. Jeff Denham have spent about 10 percent on digital ads, according to the study.

Five House candidates — Young Kim (CA-39), Leonard Lance (NJ-07), Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Mark Harris (NC-09) and Jim Hagedorn (MN-01) — focused 100 percent of their ad spending online.

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