Political Party: Why Digital Advertising Will Be a Deciding Factor in This Election – And It’s Not About Spend

2020 presidential candidates are spending more on digital ads than in any previous election. The video ad market for politics is expected to grow by $2 billion between 2018 and 2020, a 50% year-over-year increase, according to new estimates from Cross Screen Media and Advertising Analytics. There’s lots of talk about who raises the most and whether or not they’re spending it well. All that talk misses the point.

Candidates are like start-ups: they can spend all they want, the winning candidate will be the one with the best idea and the clearest message.

Both candidates and start-ups use digital media for the same goal: visibility. Plenty of start-ups pour money into their digital ad spend early on. The ones that disrupt major industries, however, succeed because they come into a market at the right time with the right message.

Take Airbnb. In 2014, after a few years of moderate growth, the San Francisco-based start-up set its sights on the gargantuan hotel industry. The company’s “Never a Stranger” ad campaign clearly expressed their vision of the sharing economy. As the David to the hotel industry’s Goliath (Hilton alone operated with a $190 million digital ad budget to Airbnb’s $22 million), Airbnb went on to irrevocably change the hotel business (while taking a big chunk of it for themselves).

The same principle works with politics, on both sides of the aisle. On the right, Donald Trump smoked his GOP presidential competitors in 2016 with a substantially lower digital ad spend and loud and clear messaging about big ideas. On the left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted an entrenched and better-funded incumbent to win her congressional seat, and she has been dominating headlines and social media ever since. In 2018, AOC spent a mere $2 million on digital advertising to her opponent’s $8 million. Since then, her twitter has taken the form of lengthy threads that make headlines and keep her followers engaged.

For the 2020 presidential race, the press is predictably obsessed with which Democratic candidate has raised how much. Frontrunner Joe Biden has already invested $3.5 million in online ads in his first two months in the race and Bernie Sanders is close behind him, spending $3.4 million this year. Meanwhile, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has only spent $600,000 on digital ads, and has stayed afloat in the race. Democratic candidates will live or die by their strength and clarity of their message.

Political candidates are start-ups, and similarly, most of them will fail. Massive fundraising and ad spend can’t compensate for a mediocre product—and the candidates themselves are both the product and the message.

Forget massive ad spend. Whether your goal is POTUS or IPO, the key to making the most of a digital ad spend is to focus on a crystal clear message. Then worry about the views.