The very online admiral giving Iowa Democrats hope
Inside Mike Franken’s Facebook-powered campaign to dethrone a Senate dinosaur
Iowa has been slipping away from Democrats for several years, and in a difficult midterm environment, few political watchers have rated the state’s statewide contests as competitive this fall. Admiral Mike Franken’s team disagrees. But by railing against FOX News and taking on an incumbent seeking to finish his Senate career at the ripe age of 95, he just may be able to pull off an upset in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race.
In this week’s FWIW, we’ll break down how the Franken campaign has been fueled almost entirely by an online grassroots enthusiasm that has been hard to find this cycle. But first…
By the numbers
FWIW, here were the top-spending political advertisers on Facebook + Instagram last week:
PhRMA was the top spending political advertiser on Facebook ads last week, as they grow increasingly desperate to kill the Democrats’ climate and healthcare bill that may reach Biden’s desk as soon as this weekend. The group’s CEO recently threatened Democrats, saying they’d use “every tool of modern political advocacy” to exact revenge on those voting for the bill. Huffington Post recently reported on some of the organization’s direct and indirect campaigns trying to scare seniors in a last-ditch effort to stop the legislation.
Other groups are freaking out about the likely passage of the reconciliation bill too. One of the largest is conservative Heritage Foundation, which is targeting conserva-Dems on Facebook in hopes that at least a few will defect on today’s House vote:
Meanwhile, here were the top political advertisers on Google platforms last week, including YouTube:
Conservative outside group One Nation continues to outspend pretty much everyone else on Google and YouTube ads, mostly targeting Senate races in WI, GA, and NH. They’ve spent over $1 million on these ads in the past month alone. While Republican outside investment is mostly moving through this one organization, national Democrats are spending from an array of outside groups in these Senate races.
The dark-money front group United for Clean Power ended up spending over $70,000 on Google and YouTube ads last week, but after we published our in-depth investigation with Popular Information on Monday, the organization deactivated all advertising.
… and here are the top political ad spenders on Snapchat so far this year:
Looking for more detailed midterm candidate spending numbers? We provide weekly + historical data in battleground races for premium subscribers every week. Here are links to that content for Senate races, Gubernatorial races, and House races.
From around the internet:
Content that is shared organically on social media platforms like Facebook can have a much larger impact than paid advertising. Which midterm candidates are receiving the most reactions, comments, and shares on their campaign’s Facebook posts? Here’s a roundup for premium FWIW subscribers >>
On Monday night, FBI agents searched former President Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago. In the immediate aftermath, Republicans went to a very dark place, very quickly. For premium subscribers, we pulled together a roundup of some of the top-performing Facebook posts about the FBI’s action this week. See the right-wing outrage >>
Makena Kelly at The Verge looked at the DNC’s influencers program - another example of how campaigns and party committees are using distributed content organizing to spread their messages far and wide. Read all about it here >>
The very online admiral giving Iowa Democrats hope
Mike Franken wasn’t supposed to be the Democrats’ nominee for U.S. Senate in Iowa.
For nearly a year, former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, a rising star in Democratic politics, had the institutional backing and the inside-the-beltway attention to sweep her party’s nomination and take on longtime Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley this November. Then came a major stumble when her campaign nearly failed to meet the required number of signatures to qualify to get on the ballot. It was an unforced error, and an obscure former U.S. Navy Admiral from Lebanon, Iowa was ready to seize the opportunity at full speed ahead.
Anatomy of an upset
On June 7th, Admiral Mike Franken beat Finkenauer by 15 points, shocking beltway observers but hardly surprising Iowans who follow politics closely. “I wasn't surprised by the result, but maybe the margin was a little surprising,” says Pat Rynard, Managing Editor of local news site Iowa Starting Line. “I think everything kind of went his way in the final weeks of the primary.”
Rynard pointed us to one data point that illustrated a pre-primary Franken surge: the rapid growth of Franken’s following on Facebook.
The Franken campaign, too, wasn’t surprised by their upset win. “When the results started coming in… I think the Franken campaign and our supporters were the only people in the country NOT surprised,” Ryan Aquilina, the campaign’s lead digital strategist told FWIW.
An online fundraising behemoth
More shocking than their primary win, however, is how the Franken campaign has been funded. Aquilina and others told FWIW that 80% of the total campaign’s budget during the primary was raised online. For casual observers of politics: that’s a lot.
“That's actual small-dollar donations,” says Aquilina. “I’ve worked on over a dozen competitive Senate races, and I’ve never seen anything like that before. Digital wasn’t just central to the primary; it quite literally funded the whole campaign.”
The campaign’s online fundraising strategy has focused on flooding the zone, listening to its audience, and being first to market with digital ads intended to fire up grassroots progressive donors across the country. They’ve broken some long-established rules of Facebook advertising by using massive, text-based posts to tell the candidate’s story in their ads, and they’ve treated their Facebook post comment sections as mini focus groups to learn what their donors want to hear more of.
“I read and comb through every single Facebook ad and its comments…you quickly learn that there is specific language that online donors use, language they don’t like, and issues they care about disproportionally that you wouldn’t necessarily get otherwise,” says Aquilina. “Mirroring that language and those issues back to them in an appropriate manner shows them that they have a home with this campaign and this candidate.”
This spring, Democrats from California to New York saw their Facebook feeds flooded with a polished Admiral Franken railing against FOX News’ propaganda machine. It’s been one of their most successful messages to activate small-dollar donors.
That a Democratic candidate would fundraise by railing against FOX News seems completely obvious - until you realize that Franken is one of the only candidates running for statewide office anywhere this cycle doing so at this scale. “The decision to take on FOX News and other right-wing propaganda in our campaign derived — like most things we do — directly from a conversation with the candidate. I try to root everything we do in an authentic story of his, and we just so happened to have a story (from his military career) where he had actually asked for FOX News to be turned off in the mess halls,” explained Aquilina.
To further underscore the Franken campaign’s reliance on digital advertising for fundraising, just take a look at year-to-date Facebook and Google weekly ad spending in the race:
Franken has spent over $1.24 million on digital ads since January, while Grassley has spent just over $86,000. As a result, Franken’s campaign is outraising his Republican opponent by a wide margin, although Grassley continues to have more cash on hand.
Dethroning a dinosaur
Will all this grassroots energy and investment actually help move the needle in November? Iowa has been slipping away from Democrats for years, and few national political watchers have rated this race as competitive. We have yet to see national outside groups investing major dollars in the state’s statewide contests, and many Democrats remember how many grassroots dollars were set on fire on behalf of Amy McGrath (KY) and Jaime Harrison’s (SC) Senate campaigns in 2020.
However, Iowa isn’t South Carolina, and the last general election poll showed the 88-year-old Grassley up by 8 points - a healthy margin, but also his narrowest lead against an opponent in decades.
“It feels a little different this time,” says a cautiously optimistic Rynard. “You don't want to get your hopes up too much just because it's Iowa and this midterm environment, but Grassley in particular is facing a real lack of enthusiasm.”