Georgia political campaigns spent big money to put ads in your social media feeds

If it seems like Stacey Abrams or Herschel Walker have been popping up on your social media timeline more than usual, it’s not your imagination.

Over 7,000 groups ranging from political parties to environmentalists and anti-union coalitions spent money to beam Facebook ads to Georgians’ screens last month during the buildup to the May 24 primary election.

Counting only the ads that cost at least $100, Facebook took in more than $3.8 million last month from candidates and political committees who want their message in front of Georgia eyeballs.

Topping the list is Fair Fight, the voting rights organization founded by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, which spent more than $451,000 between May 1 and May 30. The affiliated group Fair Fight Action spent more than $68,000 during the same period.

Warnock, other Dems spending big

A few Republican candidates or groups cracked the top 20 spenders. GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker’s campaign shelled out $147,000, and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger bought $118,000 worth of Facebook ads. Gov. Brian Kemp’s leadership committee spent more than $93,000 on ads targeting Abrams and former Sen. David Perdue.

But most of the biggest advertisers were liberal candidates or groups associated with liberal causes. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock spent the most of any candidate at more than $285,000, and specific issues like abortion rights, gun safety and climate change are all represented in the big money spenders. The Uvalde, Texas mass shooting took place on the same day as Georgia’s primary election, and Sandy Hook Promise, a group dedicated to ending gun violence, briefly eclipsed Warnock’s spot as the top spender in Georgia during the week following the election, spending just over $46,000 that week.

A pile of left-leaning money making its way to Georgians’ social media feeds shouldn’t be too shocking, said David Schweidel, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

“Just as was the case a few years ago, all eyes are going to be on Georgia in the upcoming midterm,” he said. “I’m not entirely surprised to see more liberal groups spending in the state given how tight a race now-Sen. Warnock was in during the last election. Given recent events, including both the Supreme Court opinion that was leaked and recent mass shootings, there may be the belief that Georgia political races are a good use of ad money if you’re looking to have an impact.”

Not only has Warnock’s campaign been among the top Facebook ad spenders, but they have also maintained that spending since the election. His team spent more than $7,000 on Facebook ads on Election Day and did not dip very far below that in the week afterwards, ending the month with a $6,522 check to Facebook.

Walker’s daily Facebook budget was about the same as Warnock’s until the day after the election, when it dropped to the triple digits.

“Warnock is keeping up the pressure, while Walker appears to be taking his foot off the gas, at least digitally,” Schweidel said. “Walker just made it through the primary, so he may be holding off on ad spending in preparation for an advertising blitz as the election approaches. Part of it is going to depend how much each of the candidates has at their disposal. If they each had unlimited funds, I think you’d be seeing a barrage of ads. So, the fact that we are not I think is telling.”

Neither campaign responded to emailed questions about social media strategy.

Both men have entered the general with princely sums to their names, but Warnock’s pockets are a pinch princelier. They’re stuffed with $23 million, according to FEC filings, whereas Walker is sitting on about $7 million.

Warnock for Georgia had six Facebook ads with more than 1 million impressions last month, four of which highlight proposals intended to help Georgians’ finances, and two of which were reminders to vote.

A safe primary and fat wallet mean Warnock has been able to try to build up his brand in anticipation for the coming brawl, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“Not having any competition, he has been concentrating on creating a positive image and hoping that will be protection as he comes under increasing attack from Walker, but also from (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell and so on. By getting that positive image, hopefully that will ensure there’s a good defense once the negative noise is put out there, people already like and trust him.”

Demographics in the governor’s race

Part of the allure of advertising on social media is the perception that your message will reach the audience you want to target.

Facebook’s public ad library keeps track of the age and gender of the accounts that view ads.

Abrams’ most recent Facebook ad was viewed 70% by women, and a full 25% of viewers were women between 25 and 34.

Kemp’s digital audiences tend to skew older and more male. His most recent ad has an audience that is 74% male, more than 72% over 55 and 45% older than 65.

Facebook is gaining a reputation as a platform for older people, but using it to connect with young people may help out Abrams and the Democrats, Bullock said.

“The Facebook efforts by Abrams and the liberal political groups, they make a lot of sense,” Bullock said. “She is concentrating on infrequent voters, nonvoters, minority voters, Black, young voters. Something that became apparent to me several years ago in classes is if I were to mention ads that had billions of dollars behind them on television, none of the students knew what I was talking about. They don’t watch television.”

Facebook also keeps track of where users who view ads live. Both Abrams’ and Kemp’s ads were largely sent to viewers in Georgia, but some ads were viewed more by people out of state. For example, an Abrams ad that cited Politico in calling the race neck and neck and urged readers to donate received 17% of its views in California, 7% in New York and 7% in Georgia.

That’s not likely to stop Republicans from calling Abrams a California-style liberal, but Abrams’ national profile is still likely a net positive, Schweidel said.

“In the current race, it may give her a fundraising edge compared to Gov. Kemp,” he said. “It will also help if she has aspirations at the national level. There could be an argument made that her campaign is being bankrolled by out of state PACs and donors, but the reality is that we’re in such a hyper-partisan political environment that anyone who would fault her for that was not planning to vote for her to begin with. I expect this election cycle is going to be all about turnout, not about persuading undecided voters. So, that will be the challenge for both Gov. Kemp and Stacey Abrams.”

Kemp’s campaign sends ads to out-of-state fans as well, sometimes creating two identical ads, one to be viewed by all Georgians and one to be split among viewers in other states, with neighboring states like Florida, Alabama and North Carolina as well as Texas getting much of the views.

Georgia Facebook users are also sometimes treated to ads for candidates from other states. Top spenders include Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida, who is running for Senate there and spent nearly $22,000 advertising to Georgians last month, Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke who chipped in nearly $9,000, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who spent about $4,400 on Facebook ads in Georgia.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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