The Industry

Google Tied an Arm Behind Political Campaigns’ Backs

The company just made it harder to target voters with ads. Will it hurt Democrats or Republicans more?

Three workers wearing sweatshirts converse and walk outside Google headquarters.
Google, along with Facebook, dominates the digital advertising market.
Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images

The 2020 election is nearly a year away, but campaigns are already spending millions on online ads. On Facebook alone so far in 2019, the Trump campaign has bought more than $15 million of ads, according to the company’s political ad library—far more than any candidate in the Democratic primary field.

This corner of the electoral economy was already closely watched following the tempestuous 2016 race. But it’s come under heavy scrutiny recently as Facebook has defended a policy of allowing politicians to say whatever they want on the platform, including in highly targeted ads by candidates, even if the content of an ad is false. So far, Facebook has stuck with its current rules. But Twitter has decided to ban all political ads. Even more significant is Google, which along with Facebook dominates online advertising. The company on Wednesday announced a major overhaul of how it lets campaigns target voters across YouTube, Google search, and everywhere else on the web where it serves ads.

Google said that it would no longer allow election-related ads to target people based on their political affiliation, like if they identify as “left-leaning” or “right-leaning,” or according to public voter records. The company will still allow political advertisers to reach people based on their gender, ZIP code, and age, as well as the subject matter of the content they’re reading or watching. Perhaps most crippling for campaigns, however, is Google’s decision to remove political advertisers’ ability to use Customer Match, a service that allowed advertisers to combine their own voter lists with Google’s collection of information on what users do online, to more precisely target ads. Unlike Facebook, Google also said it will prohibit ads that make “demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.” Google’s ad system has allowed campaigns to target very specific demographics of individuals who are driven by interest in hot-button political issues about which they are passionate, which in theory could be used to mislead voters in the runup to Election Day.

What will this mean for our elections—and how politicians try to reach us? To understand how Google’s change will impact campaigns, I separately spoke with two political strategists: Eric Wilson, a Republican specialist in digital campaigns who has worked with Sen. Marco Rubio and others, and Danielle Butterfield, the director of paid media at Priorities USA, which is among the top Democratic super PACs campaigning in 2020. Their interviews, presented together, have been edited for length and clarity.

April Glaser: How will the changes to Google’s policy for political ads change your job?

Eric Wilson: Why it’s significant is that Google accounts for about 43 percent of the online advertising market, so it’s going to be an important way for campaigns to reach voters. This change doesn’t alter how much time voters are spending on Google platforms, including YouTube. So we still have to engage there. What that is going to result in is a different approach for how we engage on Google, and it’s going to be more like broadcast media. Rather than focusing on issues that are specifically of interest to certain groups of voters.

Danielle Butterfield: I think the best way to understand the changes that Google made is that they are eliminating the ability for political advertisers to match offline data into an online universe and run ads targeting those universes. They’ve restricted the targeting available to us to age, gender, geography, and then contextual keyword targeting—and really [Google] search is probably our primary use case for contextual keyword targeting. I think in politics you have a lot of campaigns and organizations that are very accustomed to using voter file data to cut their lists. And that happens on digital and it happens on mail and it happens on the doors and field campaigns. You want to understand how a household has voted in the past and their average support for Democrats versus Republicans, and then you cut your lists and you cut your targeting. So taking that tool out of our toolbox definitely changes how we think about targeting.

Are there any workarounds that will allow you to target in ways that you did before the policy change?

Wilson: So, we’ve seen in Washington state, where Facebook and Google decided to stop accepting political ads rather than comply with state campaign finance regulation, that campaigns have still successfully gotten ads through. So it is questionable about how they’re going to enforce this mechanism. And then I think what is possible is that campaign advertisers could onboard their custom audiences on other partners that could have access to Google’s inventory. So you might not get access to that first bite of the apple, but you get a second chance at it. There are other ad networks and other publishers.

Butterfield: The workaround is that there are places outside of Google that are still accepting offline data. I think one of my concerns in this election actually is that there’s been so much focus on advertising that’s happening on Google and Facebook exclusively when we do know that a lot of impressions are served outside of those two platforms. It’s just that Google and Facebook have done a lot of work after 2016 to build up an ad-transparency tool. So you’ve been able to see, for the first time, digital spending on those platforms. They did that obviously to help with transparency coming out of the 2016 election. It’s just that I always like to say you have to know what you don’t know when it comes to opposition spending and understanding where campaigns are spending their dollars, and we spend a lot of money on places that are not Google and Facebook, places like local news, Hulu, Spotify, and Pandora. And there are definitely other opportunities to use cookie-based targeting and offline targeting, which are all interchangeable ways to describe the same method. It just requires thinking outside of the Google box.

Will any campaigns potentially benefit or be harmed by Google’s political ad policy change?

Wilson: I think the key is that if we’re all on the same playing field and the rules are enforced evenly then everyone will suffer together, and so I think that’s critical that there’s no uneven enforcement—that’s a big concern. I think it’ll be tough for campaigns to raise money online and build their email lists, which is a step backward for candidates who want to focus on grassroots fundraising and who want to avoid major donor fundraising or raising from corporate PACs, things like that.

Butterfield: Our primary focus is on motivating and persuading voters, whereas campaigns are spending a lot more of their money on direct response–style advertising or soliciting donations and volunteer sign-ups. So I think direct response–style campaigns are going to be disproportionally impacted. In fact, a lot of the Democratic primary candidates, I think, are going to be very much impacted because they’ve been organizing for the last six months or longer trying to get their supporters engaged. And for get-out-the-vote work especially, which happens like two weeks before Iowa or two weeks before New Hampshire, they lack the ability to then follow up with people that they’ve organized with advertising. Which is definitely a limitation I don’t think any of them were planning for.

What’s something you did in a previous campaign cycle that you won’t be able to do now?

Wilson: The first thing that comes to mind is the ability to retarget or remarket to our site visitors. So once you come to a campaign’s website, being able to serve you ads for the rest of the campaign whenever Google finds you on properties where they serve ads. So I think that’s a big disadvantage—being able to target YouTube ads to known voters—that is going away. Search is still an important component, so we will continue to invest in search as long as they’ll let us because that’s where voters trying to find campaigns and candidates go. And then the final example that I’ll point out is that Google knows a lot about its customers, so they know if you are interested in certain topics, what they call affinity groups. So you can talk about outdoors issues to people who are known outdoor enthusiasts.

Butterfield: I think a good example is in the past we’ve set up campaigns so that if someone has already voted—there’s early voting in a lot of states—if someone has already cast a ballot, we get that information from the secretaries of state, what we’ve done is we’ve onboarded those people and suppressed them from our campaign so we no longer have to target people who we know have already voted. That will no longer be available to us.

How do you think this will affect your rival party?

Wilson: Given Google’s political monoculture, which is very left-wing, I think there’s some distrust and unease from folks on the right that this ban on a pretty widely used ad technology is not going to be evenly enforced and that liberal groups, candidates, and causes might be able to get things through that conservatives and Republicans can’t.

Butterfield: It seems to me like this will impact them a lot, just based on how they’ve described their digital strategy to date. They’ve done a lot of work to collect personal information from their supporters. That’s been a primary focus, just based on some analysis that we’ve done, like 89 percent of Donald Trump’s ads so far have been direct response in nature, meaning it’s said something like sign up, donate, add your name. They’re doing a lot of work to collect people’s information and then follow up with them later, so they now lack the ability to follow up using that personal information on Google. It definitely seems like that would have a dramatic impact on their program.