Senate candidates spend record sums on online ads


Jaime Harrison, the Democratic Senate nominee in South Carolina (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

It isn’t only presidential hopefuls spending big to get their messages out; candidates running for Senate have turned to digital advertising to reel in donors and further the agendas around which their platforms are based. 

Among congressional candidates, the top five online ad spenders in the 2020 election cycle are Senate candidates in key races — and thanks to online advertising, they’ve raised record amounts of money in this election cycle.

The highest spender is Amy McGrath, a moderate challenger up against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Her campaign has spent $7 million on digital ads with about $4 million spent on Google, with the remaining $3.1 million going to Facebook ads. McConnell, on the other hand, spent just over $4 million, about $2.7 million to Facebook and $1.3 million to Google. McConnell’s ads encouraged voters to donate to his campaign in order to “help Mitch fight back against Democrats’ attacks.” 

McGrath’s ad campaign includes a series of animated videos called “Swamp Turtle: Starring Mitch McConnell.” These videos portray McConnell as a cartoon turtle at the beck and call of the president, and a related website calls McConnell “the ultimate creature of the Washington Swamp.” 

Similarly, McConnell’s Facebook ads call McGrath “extreme,” and rally his base against “the mob,” which has become a common term used by various Republicans to recast Democratic protests as anarchy.

According to a Quinnipiac poll from Sept. 16, McConnell is pushing ahead in the Kentucky race with 53 percent, while McGrath trails behind at 41 percent. But in South Carolina — a red state — Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison has incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) locked into a tie, with both candidates polling at 48 percent.

Harrison ranked just after McGrath in overall spending on digital advertisements, with more than $7 million. Most than half went to Facebook ads with $4.7 million in spending on the platform, while around $2.3 million went to Google. 

Some of Harrison’s ads appeal to faith, while others stress his focus on universal healthcare and criticize Graham’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Carolina. Meanwhile, Graham’s ads cite a “common sense, conservative message” and urge potential donors to “help Senator Graham stand up to the angry Left.”

Graham’s campaign ranks fifth on the list, having spent around $3.5 million. Nearly all of that went to Facebook ads and the remaining $550,000 was spent on Google.

Astronaut-turned-Senate hopeful Mark Kelly is running an ad campaign in Arizona as he challenges  incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.). With $4.3 million spent — $3 million on Facebook and $1.3 million on Google — Kelly’s ads appeal to the heart of the Arizona working people, focusing on a strong economy, science and data. McSally’s ads say she “is fighting side-by-side with President Trump to put Americans first.”

The contests in Kentucky, Arizona and South Carolina make up the top three most expensive Senate races so far. The candidates have primarily relied on online supporters to raise record amounts of money. 

Online advertising is proving popular, with Google and Facebook emerging as industry bohemiths. From 2011 to 2020, digital media consumption has increased from 214 minutes to 451 per day, and digital advertisements are expected to account for more than half of both U.S. and world spending — and they’re set to cross the $1 billion mark for the first time during the 2020 election cycle.

But the internet is a vast expanse of uncharted waters. With troubles ranging from foreign government interference exploiting pre-existing chasms in American society to microtargeting making use of personal details, digital ads represent a largely unexplored sector — mainly because they’re so new.

They are also prone to misuse. For broadcast and print advertisements, there are regulating bodies such as the Federal Communications Commission, but there is no such organization for digital ads. This not only makes it difficult to know who is really buying the ads — and if they’re doing so legally — but it also contributes to a blurred line between truth and fiction.

Earlier this month, CNN Business reported that a series of deceptive political posts racked up millions of views on Facebook and Twitter. According to the article, four misleading videos were circulated by several Republicans, including President Donald Trump. Among these videos was one edited to make it seem as though Joe Biden had fallen asleep during a television interview. Although the social media platforms later marked the video as “manipulated media,” it garnered more than 1 million views prior to the label being applied.

Facebook plans to implement a ban on new political ads in the week leading up to Election Day in an attempt to “tamp down on deceitful content ahead of the November vote,” according to Politico. However, many worry that the ban won’t do enough to curb misinformation, or that the damage has already been done. 

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Senate candidates spend record sums on online ads

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