2018 Election Digital Ad Spend: GOP Favored Google, Dems Favored Facebook

Advertising IMGE Studies Strategy

Although the 2018 midterms aren’t technically over just yet, due to some key House races still unconfirmed, it is safe to say political campaigns and PACs broke records on advertising spending this election cycle.

Political entities spent over $4 billion on ads between local broadcast, cable, and digital.

Even with local broadcasting seeing the lion’s share of this spend, the numbers were impressive for digital. About $950 million was spent (mostly on Google and Facebook’s Ad Platforms). This nearly quadruples the $250 million of spending from the 2014 midterm elections!

But who was behind all this spend? How did Democrats and Republicans differ in their spending strategies?

Thanks to Google’s Transparency Report and Facebook’s Ad Archive Report, we can track active and inactive ads, estimated impressions on these ads, and – most important – spend totals.


Twelve advertisers crossed the $1 million spend mark across all of Google’s Ad Services (AdWords, DV360). Of those, seven were supportive of Republican candidates or legislation.

Any guesses on who the top three spenders were? HINT: It’s all Republican.

1. Senate Leadership Fund (SLF)

Amount Spent: $5,122,200
Number of ads purchased: 2,108

The SLF played a pivotal role in Indiana and Tennessee, flipping the first in favor of Republicans and keeping the latter under Republican control. Ads were mostly targeting rival Democrats and the bulk of the ad spend occurred from Sep 19th – Oct 16th.

2. Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF)

Amount Spent: $3,786,000
Number of ads purchased: 1,751

The CLF ran a mix of positive and negative pre-roll ads supporting Republican candidates in a handful of congressional races. Some of the larger spends came in VA-07, KS-03, and NM-02. Ads mostly ran from early September through Election Day.

3. National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)

Amount Spent: $2,697,100
Number of ads purchased: 971

The NRSC most recently ran active ads for the special-Election in Mississippi. They also also played a big role from August – November by supporting Republican candidates in key races in Nevada, Arizona, and Missouri; successfully flipping Missouri.

Note: Ad spend reporting only dates back to May 31st, 2018, so total spends are likely even higher.


On Facebook’s Ad Manager platform, an astounding total of 36 political advertisers surpassed the $1 million mark. See our in-depth breakdown of top spending Facebook political advertisers in the final days of the election here. Of those, 18 were in support of Democrats, 11 were non-partisan, and just 7 were in support of Republicans. Democrats dominated Facebook this time around.

Here’s an outline of the top three spenders on Facebook:

1. Beto for Texas

Amount Spent: $8,098,080
Number of Ads in Archive: 9,042

Not a big surprise here. The Beto for Senate team led a historic grassroots fundraising effort and re-invested a lot of it into Facebook Ads.

Beto O'Rourke Election Eve Ad

2. Donald J. Trump

Amount Spent: $3,801,437
Number of Ads in Archive: 69,401

Through both of his main groups (MAGA Committee and Donald J. Trump for President), Trump-affiliated organizations used Facebook to boost endorsed candidates across the finish line. These groups have continued their activity post-election, as well.

Donald J. Trump ad for 2019 Sustaining Membership Renewal

3. MoveOn.org

Amount Spent: $3,061,661
Number of Ads in Archive: 2,860
MoveOn.org took part in many key races nationwide; dating back to late summer. They remain active, focusing on opposing the Trump agenda.

2018 Facebook ad from MoveOn in support of Andrew Gillum

Why did the two parties spend so differently?

The difference in these spends illustrate a key difference in the strategies of the two parties this election cycle.

Democrats capitalized on high voter enthusiasm. They used Facebook’s direct-response performance features to their full extent. They ran email acquisition ads early, supplemented by small-dollar fundraising projects through the platform, and then effectively mobilized voters in the early voting and election day periods.

The GOP’s focus was more on contrast persuasion ads and aligning themselves with the Trump Administration. Republicans optimized more for higher message frequencies to identified voter files and mostly held off on major acquisition and donation projects throughout the Primaries and General. Although surprising to many, these tactics proved to be effective in battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Missouri.

Learn more about how IMGE helps our clients design their winning ad strategy.

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