The Industry

No One Is Buying More Political Ads on Facebook Right Now Than Beto O’Rourke

CONROE, TX - OCTOBER 21: Democratic Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke greets supporters at the conclusion of a campaign rally on October 21, 2018 in Conroe, Texas. O'Rourke is running against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the midterm elections. (Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images)
Beto O’Rourke campaigning IRL. Loren Elliott/Getty Images

The amount of money being pumped into the faceoff between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and challenger Beto O’Rourke is unprecedented for a U.S. Senate race. Earlier this month, O’Rourke shared that he’s raised a hefty $38.1 million from individual donations from July through September, with Cruz raising $12 million during the same time period. Even so, Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat in a statewide race in nearly three decades, one reason why O’Rourke’s campaign has been so unconventional.

One particular tactic that’s set the Beto for Texas campaign apart it is reliance on ads on Facebook, where it’s shelled out more than $5.73 million since May, according to an ad-spending report released by Facebook on Tuesday. The only other candidate running for a seat this November who comes somewhat close is billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat who has spent nearly $2 million on Facebook in his bid for Illinois governor. After Pritzker, the Facebook figures drop dramatically: The next biggest ad buyers running in November are all Democrats spending less than $1 million each: Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

How much is O’Rourke trying blanket news feeds? On Tuesday, the second day of early voting in Texas, the Beto team ran more than 590 ads—that is, promoted and targeted posts—on Facebook. While the vast majority of the ads appear to be targeted at Texas, plenty aren’t, instead making fundraising appeals to places like California, New Jersey, and South Carolina.

This doesn’t necessarily signal a sea change in political spending. The Beto for Texas campaign is spending way more on television ads than online ads, after all. According to analysis complied by Wesleyan University’s Media Project, the campaign has spent nearly $12 million on television ads—more than double its Facebook spend. Elsewhere, though, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Gillibrand have both avoided television ad buys altogether this election cycle, focusing almost entirely on online advertisements, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money in elections.

If O’Rourke pulls off an upset in Texas, his heavy Facebook spending will surely be examined as a factor—just as the Trump campaign’s 2016 focus on Facebook targeting looked wise in retrospect. There’s another advantage to Facebook, though: It’s a way for politicians hoping to establish a national following—and perhaps run for president—to cast a wider net while campaigning for a statewide seat. (It also doesn’t hurt that out-of-state fundraising is always welcome, too.) The Senate campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, has spent more than $1 million on the platform since May, even though Harris isn’t up for re-election until 2022. President Trump, likewise, isn’t up for re-election until 2020, but still he has two massive Facebook operations supporting his candidacy: the Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. Together, the two groups have spent $4.78 million on Facebook ads since May.

Google is also sharing how much politicians are spending on political ads on its platform this election cycle. Though candidates are investing considerably less there, Trump’s campaign has spent $1.57 million on Google ads, while O’Rourke’s has spent $1.26 million since the end of May. On Google, whose figures include ads on YouTube, six of the seven top spenders for political ads are conservative PACs or candidates, with the Republican Senate and Congressional Leadership Funds taking the top two slots.

On Twitter, Trump’s favorite social media platform, the president’s campaign doesn’t appear to have spent any money on promoted tweets. But Senate candidates are certainly advertising on the platform. O’Rourke, who has 700,000 followers, is listed in Twitter’s political ad database as having spent more than $760,000 on promoted tweets. No surprise that Trump hasn’t bothered. His tweets don’t really need much promotion.