Has Beto got his mojo back?
How the star Texas candidate’s internet fandom has evolved since his 2018 Senate run
Happy Friday - we hope you have a restful Labor Day weekend.
So much has been written about how John Fetterman’s campaign is winning the online meme wars, and how far-right extremist candidates are often viral sensations among GOP voters. But week after week, we’ve noticed one midterm candidate leads all others in terms of engagement on Facebook in particular: Beto O’Rourke.
In 2018, the former El Paso congressman seemingly came out of nowhere to nearly beat Sen. Ted Cruz, harnessing grassroots energy on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to fuel his campaign. This cycle, he’s using the same digital-first strategy to take on Gov. Greg Abbott in November.
How has Beto’s use of social media evolved since 2018? Will it translate into votes this time around? We’ll dig into that and more, but first…
By the numbers
FWIW, here were the top-spending political advertisers on Facebook + Instagram last week:
Raphael Warnock was the top spending political advertiser on Facebook and Instagram nationwide last week. His re-election campaign has spent over $3.5 million on Meta platforms in 2022 alone - far more than any other candidate for U.S. Senate. His most recent ads promote a campaign bus tour around Georgia, feature young voters explaining why he’s their guy, and go on offense on abortion rights.
Despite his sustained advertising campaigns on digital and TV, two new polls out this week show Warnock trailing Republican intellectual heavyweight and alleged domestic abuser Herschel Walker by a narrow margin. Georgia, this is not a drill.
Meanwhile, here were the top political advertisers on Google platforms last week, including YouTube:
Since Republican candidates continue to lag behind in digital ad spending this cycle, conservative outside groups are quickly trying to fill the gaps. Last week, dark money group One Nation spent over half a million dollars on YouTube targeting GA and WI Senate races, and the Senate Leadership Fund spent $116,000 attacking John Fetterman in Pennsylvania.
Is it 2024 yet? Democratic Super PAC Future Forward USA Action made its biggest Google ad buy yet last week, spending over $125,000 on national YouTube ads thanking President Biden for pushing through the Inflation Reduction Act.
… and here are the top political ad spenders on Snapchat so far this year:
Democrats and their allies continue to use Snapchat ads to reach younger voters, as Republicans are largely M.I.A. from the platform. Just in the past few weeks, the DSCC, the DCCC, Senate Majority PAC, Priorities USA, Jared Polis (CO-Gov), and Janet Mills (ME-Gov) launched new campaigns on the vertical video platform.
From around the internet
The New York Times has an excellent look at “The Online Rise of Doug Mastriano,” the far-right Republican state senator attempting to win the Pennsylvania Governor’s mansion. Read all about how his campaign relies on Facebook to build grassroots support >>
This one isn’t directly politics-related, but is 100% worth your time: KnowYourMeme published a report this week on the platform origins of internet memes over the past 10+ years. FWIW, it's extensive and fascinating.
Seeking to become more palatable to the general electorate, Republicans from Arizona to North Carolina are rushing to scrub their websites of any and all signs of extremism leftover from their competitive primaries.
Donald Trump is taking time off from hiding documents from the FBI and is instead spending a lot of his time online these days. Earlier this week, he shared a dozen QAnon posts and other conspiracy theories on Truth Social.
Has Beto got his mojo back?
So much has been written (by us and others) about how John Fetterman’s campaign is winning the Facebook wars. But week after week, we’ve noticed that the one midterm candidate with the most engagement on Facebook and Instagram is actually Beto O’Rourke. In 2018, the former Texas Congressman seemingly came out of nowhere to nearly beat Sen. Ted Cruz, harnessing grassroots energy on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to fuel his campaign. This cycle, he’s using the same digital-first strategy to take on Gov. Greg Abbott in November.
Beto O’Rourke consistently leads every single midterm candidate nationwide in terms of organic Facebook engagement (i.e. total interactions on public posts). According to our tracking, he’s led by this metric for ten weeks in a row. All things being equal, there’s something about him that liberals on Facebook just love.
Looking back at historical engagement on his page paints a picture of online grassroots enthusiasm throughout his political career. It’s also an illustration of how Facebook’s platform and content prioritization has changed in just five short years. Here’s a look at interactions on Beto O’Rourke’s Facebook posts since January 2018:
As you can see, Beto’s Facebook engagement crested on Election Day 2018 - when he was widely considered one of *the* rising stars in the Democratic party. The vast majority of engagement he received during that cycle came from Facebook Live videos of him driving around Texas or streaming his rallies on the campaign trail.
Nowadays, his live streams rack up fewer views and shares - but the candidate is still receiving more total organic engagement on Facebook than he did at this point in 2018. He’s also surpassing weekly engagement from his ill-fated presidential campaign in 2019.
There are a few reasons for that: First, while live video was a huge part of O’Rourke’s bid in 2018, in 2022 his campaign has also leaned on photos and text posts to get engagement - this is in line with Facebook’s own algorithm seemingly prioritizing those types of posts. Second, O’Rourke has steadily grown a much larger audience on Facebook since his loss in 2018.
On top of all these Facebook data points, Beto 2022 benefits from megaphones that Beto 2018 didn’t have. His team has been quick to take advantage of vertical video tools like Instagram Reels and TikTok, where video views often number in the hundreds of thousands. Those are also platforms that his opponent, Greg Abbott, does not fully utilize.
In terms of messaging, the Democrat is riding on three waves of outrage in Greg Abbott’s Texas: the state’s power grid failures, the Uvalde massacre, and draconian restrictions on abortion rights. Beto’s campaign has made all three issues its core focus, and they’re using every online tool to make sure Texans know where he stands on the issues. They’ve provided a channel for outraged voters to engage in the political process online and off.
…And lastly, looking at digital ad spending, Beto is absolutely crushing his opponent. Here’s a snapshot of Facebook and Google ad spending since June 1st:
All of this may be a sign that something big could be happening. Last fall, Patrick Svitek at the Texas Tribune referred to O’Rourke as “a weaker candidate with a harder race.” More recently, Svitek has written about a “gamechanging spring” for the El Paso Democrat.
At the end of the day, most DC political prognosticators won’t give Beto much of a shot. National Democrats are by and large sitting this one out. However, polls are narrowing and Texans across the state are buzzing that there’s something in the water.
We’ll find out soon enough.