How the Democratic Primary Rules Changed the Way Candidates Spend on Digital

High burn rates. Big investments. Here’s what it says about the role of digital spending in politics today.

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An unprecedented number of candidates. New Democratic debate rules. These factors have changed the whole dynamic of the presidential primary — especially in the digital space.

The new debate rules effectively split the candidates into two groups with different digital needs: essentially, political haves and have-nots. Let’s take a look at how these spending strategies differed.

The Have-Nots: High Burn Rates

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) established stricter qualifications for September and October debates in order to winnow the field of candidates.

These initial requirements — 130,000 donors and 2 percent in four qualifying national or early-state polls — have caused a high “burn rate” as candidates churn through cash attempting to secure a spot on the next stage. According to FiveThirtyEight, 11 campaigns spent more than they raised in the second quarter of this year.

For some of the candidates at the top of FiveThirtyEight’s list, the high burn rate has been worth it. Former tech executive Andrew Yang made a name for himself and found his way onto the debate stage.

Others, like Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper, headed home early despite their willingness to spend what they had.

Credit: FiveThirtyEight

The candidates who stood a reasonable chance to make the stage flooded the digital space with $1 asks in an expensive last-ditch effort. Billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer spent $3.8 million on digital ads in an attempt to reach the new donor threshold and make up for his late start. In a bid that could end up costing her now defunct-campaign $130,000, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sent fundraising emails offering to exchange tee-shirts that retail for $30 for every $1 donation.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who failed to make the debate stage, bemoaned the digital spending paradox caused by the new debate rules to the AP, “You spend $60 on Facebook right now to get a $1 donor.”

All is not lost for the candidates who have left the race. 

The digital spending-spree has left former candidates in a good position for future races. For example, John Hickenlooper’s Senatorial campaign will benefit from the donors he acquired during his brief presidential bid. All of these former contenders will be able to rely on stronger name ID and a bigger list of supporters in future elections.

These digital blitzes will likely continue for the foreseeable future now that the DNC has raised the donor and polling thresholds even higher to qualify for the November debate.

The Haves: Pouring Dollars into Early States

In general, these candidates have a lower burn rate than the top spenders — Joe Biden has the highest at just 50.6%.

The lower burn rate doesn’t necessarily mean that these candidates are spending less. They have all raised more money and therefore have to spend less to achieve similar results. These candidates also have less motivation to spend as they are guaranteed a spot on the debate stage.

The frontrunners have continued to spend heavily in the digital space, but they are focused more heavily on messaging in early states and staffing out robust digital shops.

All Candidates: Betting Big on Digital Spending

The digital spending spree will continue as the Democratic primary field winnows down and the general election kicks off. Cross Screen Media projects $800M to be spent on digital advertising in the presidential election alone. Across all elections in 2020, digital spending is projected to reach $1.6 billion — an increase of nearly $1 billion from 2018.

As we get closer to Election Day 2020, IMGE will keep you up to date on the latest trends in the digital political landscape. Stay tuned.

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