FWIW, it all comes down to turnout

In VA, NJ & elsewhere, campaigns use digital tactics to get voters to the polls

Next Tuesday, the 2021 off-year elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and several other states will reach their dramatic conclusion. Control of the Virginia governor’s mansion and House of Delegates, once heavily favored for Democrats, is now essentially a coin toss. For Democrats at least, it all comes down to turnout. 

How are the campaigns using digital tactics to turn out their voters? What messages are they using to mobilize folks to vote? We’ll dig into those strategies and more in this week’s FWIW. 

But first…

A new weekly interview series from Arena & FWIW

We’re so excited to launch Campaigner, a new weekly newsletter that digs deep into tactics that drive winning campaigns and interviews the people who are actually pushing the buttons. We’re blown away that over 1,700 of you have already signed up to receive Campaigner each Wednesday. If you haven’t yet, subscribe and check out our first issue on digital persuasion efforts, featuring Megan Clasen of Biden for President and Gambit Strategies.

By the numbers

FWIW, here were the top 10 spenders on Facebook and Instagram political ads last week:

The top spender on Facebook (or Meta) platforms last week, ExxonMobil, spent nearly $600,000 dollars. In fact, Rep. Sean Casten used this data to probe the company’s CEO at yesterday’s Oversight Committee hearing on Climate Disinformation. Over the past couple of weeks, the oil giant spent nearly $1 million on the platform, in part on GOTV ads targeting older residents of Virginia and New Jersey. They spent $29,782 and $21,974 targeting these two states, respectively, with these ads that lead to landing pages like this one

Meanwhile, here were the top political ad spenders on Google platforms last week:

Coming down to the wire, Terry McAuliffe’s campaign made their biggest-yet investment in Google + YouTube ads last week, and judging what we’re seeing in the Google Transparency Report, we suspect this final week through Election Day will represent an even larger spend. Throughout the campaign, they’ve taken pains to tie Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump, and they’re keeping that up right to the bitter end with this ad that targets a smattering of zip codes across Northern, Central, and Coastal Virginia:

...and lastly, here are the top ten spenders year-to-date on Snapchat political ads:

It all comes down to… turnout

If political campaigns are a mixture of both art and science, the final sprint to election day is all science. By the final weekend, campaigns have already identified which voters they think are in their corner, and all of their efforts are channeled into tested strategies for getting them out to vote. For Democrats, that’s typically knocking on doors, sending direct mail, blasting text messages, and banking phone calls. In recent years (and especially during the pandemic), campaigns have increasingly deployed digital ads to accomplish the same thing.  

“Turnout, especially in off-cycle elections, is what determines the outcomes.” Tatenda Musapatike, Founder + CEO of the Voter Formation Project tells us. “I think too often we talk about swing voters as making the difference in elections, when in many, many cases, it's not swing voters who vote between the parties that make the difference. The swing voters campaigns in off-cycle years and in many diverse geographies need to be concerned about are the voters who swing between voting and not voting. These are often young people, newly registered voters, voters of color, and more rural voters.”

Both the McAulliffe and Murphy campaigns have shifted into turnout mode when it comes to their digital advertising strategies. Dozens of their ads use “social pressure” techniques, informational creative, celebrity cameos, or “make a plan to vote” asks to get voters to return their ballots or head to the polls.  

“Research has historically shown that mobilization messaging that's most effective requires asking your audiences to take an action that reinforces their commitment to voting. This is most often shown in "pledge to vote" campaigns or "make a plan" campaigns.” Musapatike told FWIW. “These kinds of campaigns are most often utilized, but I do wish we'd see more creative treatments that involve cultural competency (not just using people of color stock imagery), especially when engaging communities of color.” 

One place where nonprofit groups like the Voter Formation Project and the campaigns themselves are heavily advertising in the lead-up to Election Day is Snapchat. In the past several weeks, the platform has been flooded with ads aiming to motivate young people and people of color to “Make a plan to vote.”

The platform is getting crowded - recent GOTV spenders on Snapchat have included the Democratic National Committee, Voter Formation Project, Campus Vote Project, Planned Parenthood of Virginia, Progress Virginia with SEIU, Clean Virginia, and Care in Action. Mostly absent? Any Republican campaigns or PACS.  

Stacey Abrams, Barack Obama, and… the puppets

Last week, we noticed that the McAuliffe campaign launched a new wave of mobilization ads featuring a singing band of puppets. The catchy, 15 second video ad looked familiar - it was actually a recycled ad created by Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA way back in 2018. (Remember: in Virginia, there are no real bans on coordinating between outside groups and the campaigns themselves)

Why would the McAullife campaign use a 3-year-old ad to get out the vote? Priorities USA says that it has tested well in the past. Their Deputy Executive Director, Nick Ahamed, told us: “Our Neighborhood works because it takes the principle of social pressure, which is the notion that voters show up to the polls if they are accountable to others, and communicates that message in a digital-first format that voters are more likely to watch in its entirety.”

Not making that mistake again...

Zooming out more broadly, digital advertising still makes up a really small slice of a campaign’s overall GOTV strategy. After 2020, many believed the election was way closer than expected in part due to Democrats’ decision to abandon door-knocking and in-person turnout operations (out of safety concerns). For years, Democrats have been building a volunteer turnout machine, knocking on tens of millions of doors, sending millions of text messages and banking millions of phone calls. Much of those “offline” actions - by both Democrats and progressive outside groups - are tracked in software owned by a progressive tech company, NGP VAN. So yesterday, we asked NGP VAN’s President, Amanda Coulombe, about what her team is seeing just days out from Election Day. 

“We're seeing extremely high levels of energy and action across our products heading into GOTV weekend. Democrats are volunteering, texting, phone banking, and door knocking to get their candidates across the finish line.”  

Regardless of what the polls and political press says, the elections in New Jersey and Virginia are close and still winnable for either side - and we have just four days to reach as many voters as possible and get them to vote. If you’re located near either of those states, get out there and knock some doors this weekend! You can find volunteer opportunities here on Mobilize.