The online campaign to become Pennsylvania’s next Senator
Big personalities on both sides of the aisle drive major online engagement
Tuesday’s primary election for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania brings to a close a chaotic process that has seen millions of dollars in ad spending across the commonwealth. The open seat, currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, is Democrats’ best chance to pick up a new Senate seat and retain their majority on Capitol Hill.
On the Left, Democrats are likely to nominate Lt. Gov John Fetterman, a progressive leader who has been running an objectively better campaign than his opponents, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. Recent polls have Fetterman with a commanding primary lead, so If Fetterman doesn’t win, the political Twitterverse may explode. [We should note that the Democratic primary experienced a curveball this weekend after Fetterman announced that he suffered a stroke.]
On the Right, celebrity Dr. Oz has consumed a ton of oxygen in TV advertising and in the news, and for much of the past year has been in a two-way race with businessman Dave McCormick. While Oz recently scored Donald Trump’s endorsement, Kathy Barnette, an “Ultra-MAGA” candidate, has surged late in the game and could well shake up the race.
As any Pennsylvanian is well aware by now, the vast majority of campaign spending in these races has been on traditional television ads, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. For our part, we’re interested in the digital race for the Senate seat - how campaigns are spending, messaging, and organizing online. Here’s what we’ve found:
Digital Ad Spending
FWIW, here’s how much candidates in both party primaries have spent on Meta (Facebook + Instagram) and Google (includes YouTube) ads since January 1st:
Perhaps the most striking finding in our analysis of digital ad spending in the race is on the Democratic side. John Fetterman’s campaign leads all other candidates in digital ad spending, specifically using Facebook ads to build and engage his grassroots base of supporters. Meanwhile, the Kenyatta and Lamb campaigns are clearly hoping to win some other way - completely neglecting digital investments over the past 5 months. If Democrats are going to win a competitive general election, their nominee has to get the basics right when it comes to online engagement - and only one candidate in the race has done so thus far.
Meanwhile on the Right, Dave “finance bro” McCormick and Mehmet Oz have been the biggest spenders on digital ads, spending $330,949 and $433,230 on Meta + Google ads this year, respectively.
McCormick has been regularly spending around $15k each week on ads that either portray him as a Pennsylvania version of Glenn Youngkin or portray Oz as a donkey in elephant’s clothing who’s anti-gun, anti-fracking, “wrong on abortion,” etc. For Oz’s part, the former celebrity doctor has used ads to channel GOP grievances about masks, schools, and gas in nationwide fundraising campaigns, while occasionally accusing McCormick of defrauding taxpayers. He also spent nearly $100k on digital ads in late April to make sure Pennsylvanians knew Trump endorsed him.
But it’s not just McCormick and Oz running ads against each other: pro-Oz outside group American Leadership Action and pro-McCormick group Honor Pennsylvania have both made last-minute digital ad buys. Over the past month, McCormick’s group has spent $146,579 primarily on YouTube ads either promoting him or associating Oz with Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Oz’s group has spent $27,300 on a Facebook ad campaign that launched last week attacking McCormick for being “too woke for Pennsylvania” because his firm “supported Black Lives Matter” and “covered transgender surgeries.” The group is also running ads attacking “Crazy Kathy Barnette, Pennsylvania’s wackiest Senate candidate.” Of course, they’re not attacking her for being a homophobic, islamophobic birther, but instead for saying that Black Americans feel disenfranchised.
Kathy Barnette herself has actually spent the least on digital ads among the top five GOP candidates, having spent just $52,827 online this year, primarily on Facebook and Instagram ads. However, she may not need a huge digital ad spend, since her organic social media content outperforms content from almost every other top Senate candidate in the country. More on that below.
Social Following and Engagement
Aside from paid digital investments, how are the campaigns reaching voters on social media? We looked at each candidate’s audiences across 5 social media platforms - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube - and here’s what we found:
As we noted in last week’s issue of FWIW, Oz has the largest social media following of any midterm candidate nationwide this cycle. He benefits from a baked-in audience of 13 million people across 5 platforms from his past life as a celebrity doctor and TV personality. His campaign has been able to leverage that notoriety to share political content and fundraising asks - and would be a huge advantage in the general election.
On the Left, Fetterman predictably has the largest audience across platforms. His campaign uses social media to share family updates, jokes about the candidate’s attire, and lots of photos from the campaign’s grassroots events across the commonwealth.
Those audience size numbers are important, but Facebook engagement numbers paint a slightly different picture:
According to data from Crowdtangle, over the past 7 days, ultra-MAGA candidate Kathy Barnette’s public Facebook posts have received more interactions (likes, shares, comments) than any other Senate candidate nationwide. Her page has around 40,000 followers and posts are performing better than those from Oz, whose page has over 5.6 million. Barnette’s Facebook audience has grown by a whopping 8% in the past week.
Although campaigns are multi-factorial and social engagement is a minor data point in a very complicated, big primary, these types of digital tea leaves help illustrate grassroots engagement on behalf of the candidates.
Polls close at 8pm ET
Regardless of which Republican candidate emerges from the chaos on Tuesday, this fall’s general election in Pennsylvania will be one to watch. We should begin to see primary election results trailing in around 8pm ET on Tuesday - follow @FWIWnews on Twitter for the latest.