The big lessons of political advertising in 2018

The 2018 midterm elections are in the books, the winners have been declared and the 30-second attack ads are – finally – over.

As co-directors of the Wesleyan Media Project, which has tracked and analyzed campaign advertising since 2010, we spend a lot of time assessing trends in the volume and content of political advertising.

Because we have television data that span a number of elections, we can provide detailed information on how prominent TV ads are overall or in any given location, how many different types of sponsors are active and how the content of advertising compares to prior election cycles.

Of course, television is not the only medium through which campaigns attempt to reach voters. But online advertising, which represents the biggest growth market, has been much harder to track.

Prior to May of 2018, for instance, social media giants like Google and Facebook did not release any information at all on political advertising, so tracking online advertising began in earnest only this cycle.

[embedded content] Florida Democratic congressional candidate Mary Barzee Flores focused on health care in this ad.
Although Americans frequently complain about campaign advertising, it remains an important way through which candidates for office can communicate their ideas directly to citizens, especially those who would not necessarily seek out the information themselves.

What role did political advertising play in the 2018 midterm elections? Here are our top observations:

1. Digital advertising grew in 2018.

Data on digital ads in prior cycles are not readily available, but we know from campaigns and practitioners that the dollars spent in online advertising are growing quickly. Facebook reports that just under US$400 million was spent on its platform for political ads, ranging from U.S. Senate races to county sheriff, between May of 2018 and Election Day.

Google reports about $70 million in spending on ads in races for the U.S. Senate and House on its ad network during a comparable time period.

Some candidates prioritized digital advertising over traditional television ads. For example, Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke spent at least $8 million on Facebook and another $2 million on Google. That was about 34 percent of the $29.4 million total that his campaign spent on advertising, if we include the $19.4 million spent on broadcast television in 2018.

To be sure, O’Rourke was an outlier. We found in October that about 10 percent of spending by Senate candidates on advertising was on digital ads between May 31 and Oct. 15, 2018.

Still – in a fragmenting media environment where people receive information from a variety of different sources and spend substantial time on social media and online – you might assume that campaigns’ heavy focus on digital advertising would displace television advertising.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

2. TV is still important to congressional and statewide campaigns.

This is demonstrated by the record number of television ads in 2018. Data from our project show that the number of ads aired in races for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House increased by 58 percent from 2014 to 2018, from 2.5 million to almost 4 million ad airings.

The biggest increase was in U.S. House races, where ad airings rose from under 600,000 in 2014 to over 1.2 million in 2018. The large number of competitive races in 2018, especially in the U.S. House, may account for much of the increase.

3. The election was about health care.

Even in a fragmented media era with a hyper-polarized electorate, advertising in 2018 shows that it is still possible to find agreement across campaigns on the importance of particular issues.

In this cycle, that issue was clearly health care.