Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — In an election forecasted to have record voter turnout, political campaigns have deployed a multiplatform media blitz.
Facebook is for more than likes these days, with the platform getting its share of Virginia political and issue spending to the tune of over $12.7 million in a recent three-month period, according to the social media platform.
Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising professor at Boston University who has worked as a political media consultant on election campaigns, said campaigns advertise on social media for the same reasons that consumer advertising is used.
“It’s where a lot of either voters or consumers are getting their information,” Berkovitz said. “You can specifically develop messages for individuals and smaller groups and you can very tightly target who it is that you want to reach.”
Democratic groups or candidates dominated the top 10 when ranking the largest political Facebook ad spending in Virginia. Those organizations spent a combined amount over $2.4 million. That’s excluding the money Facebook and Instagram have put into political advertising.
Facebook tracks advertising spending on issues, elections and politics in its Ad Library. The data show that over a recent 90-day period, about 2,700 groups or candidates, including Facebook and Instagram, spent over $12.7 million on Facebook ads in Virginia. During a comparable period before the election last year, Facebook ad spending totaled $5.5 million, according to a previous Capital News Service report.
The most spending from Aug. 2 to Oct. 30 went toward candidates at the top of the ballot. Over $2.2 million was spent by the two fundraising committees associated with President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden’s campaign fundraising arm The Biden Victory Fund invested more than Trump’s fundraising committee. The Biden Victory Fund spent more than $1.1 million between the pages of Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party. Over $1 million was spent on candidate Biden.
Trump’s fundraising committee The Trump Make America Great Again Committee closely trailed the Biden camp. Trump’s campaign spent just shy of $1.1 million over eight Facebook pages, including the pages of Black Voices for Trump, Mike Pence and Women for Trump. Over $750,000 of that total went to Trump’s re-election campaign.
Berkovitz said social media advertising is becoming more popular because of the analytics that are available to the campaigns.
“It provides a lot of information about the people you’re trying to reach, the people you do reach, how your message is working, what types of messages do work for them and you just have a lot more data to go on,” Berkovitz said. “We’re in a world where everything is data driven now.”
Over $1.2 million was spent on contested Virginia Congressional races and a South Carolina Senate race. Democratic incumbent in the 2nd District U.S. House race, Elaine Luria’s campaign spent more than $207,000. That lands her in the No. 4 spot. Her opponent Scott Taylor’s fundraising committee spent just shy of $62,000. Taylor previously held the seat and the election is a rematch between the two candidates.
The 7th District U.S. House race accounts for more than $15.5 million spent on all media advertising during the election season, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic incumbent, spent almost $193,000 on Facebook advertising in the last 90 days. Nick Freitas, Spanberger’s Republican opponent, spent just shy of $24,000 in the same time span. Most of the money for this closely watched race has been spent on broadcast and cable TV advertising.
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s fundraising committee spent over $186,000 in the effort to keep his 1st District U.S. Senate seat. Daniel Gade, his Republican challenger, spent significantly less through his campaign arm, investing just under $42,000.
A South Carolina Senate race between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and his Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison landed in the No. 8 and No. 9 slots, spending a combined amount of over $310,000. Jaime Harrison for U.S. Senate spent over $156,000. Team Graham Inc. spent just shy of $154,000.
Advocacy groups turn to the platform for the same reason as politicians. Stop Republicans, a self-described accountability campaign of the Progressive Turnout Project, made the No. 3 spot with just under $230,000 spent targeting Virginians through Facebook. The Progressive Turnout Project ranks No. 7 with $164,000 spent during the last 90 days.
The Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education rounded out the top 10, spending just over $151,000. SEIU is a labor union representing workers in the healthcare industry, public sector and property services. The organization spent millions nationwide this election cycle to get out the vote, target infrequent voters and promote progressive candidates.
The political advertising total in Virginia is lower compared to Florida, where almost $85 million was spent in the same 90-day period. In swing state Pennsylvania just over $57 million was spent. Over $45.2 million was spent in targeted Facebook advertising in neighboring North Carolina.
Facebook isn’t oblivious to the influence its platform has. The company recently imposed a ban on new political ads from being placed leading up to Election Day.
Judi Crenshaw, who teaches public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Facebook’s ban was “an effort to put the brakes on this influence and this disinformation leading up to the election.”
“I don’t know what else to call it except for an attempt,” Crenshaw said. “It’s a last minute attempt and it certainly is a very limited attempt when ads that were placed before this period of time are still allowed to run.”
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.