A Virtual Arms Race: How Online Campaign Expenses Have Skyrocketed In 2010

10/15/2010 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In mid-April 2010, the Democratic National Committee found itself in a mild controversy over allegations that it had been tipped off to a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the defrauding of investors by the investment bank Goldman Sachs. Google users who typed the words "Goldman Sachs SEC" into their search browser were greeted with a link (in the number one sponsored spot) to BarackObama.com. A click on that site led one to a page that read: "Fight Wall Street Greed: Help Pres. Obama Reform Wall Street and Create Jobs. Families First!"

Coming, as it did, less than an hour after news of the Goldman investigation broke, conservatives concluded that something nefarious had taken place. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent a letter seeking answers to SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro. Fox News asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs during the daily briefing what kind of shenanigans had transpired. The Washington Times called up the DNC's offices insisting that it was impossible to get a Google ad up that quickly.

Forced to respond, the DNC chose a symbolic gesture. They took out another Google ad. This one with the search terms: "Washington Times," "Republican conspiracy theories," and "purveyor baseless." It was live well within the hour, quieting the inquisitive reporters at the paper and putting the issue to rest.

Now buried on a lengthy list quasi-scandals and partisan flare-ups from the past year, the DNC's Google ads remain a telling illustration of how technology has both altered and accelerated the political process. The tools that were birthed in the 2004 election, implemented in 2006 and legitimized in 2008 have now become popularized and essential in 2010. They not only have redefined the process of communication; increasingly they are determining a large chunk of a campaign's budget.

More than 400 campaigns currently have official accounts on YouTube, according to officials with the company. From 2008 to 2010, meanwhile, there has been an 800 percent increase in the number of statewide candidates using search advertising. In 2004, the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns spent less than one percent of their budgets on online ads. In 2008, the Obama campaign spent roughly four percent. Running in an off-year election for Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell spent 7.5 percent of his ad dollars online. Massachusetts Senate candidate Scott Brown -- running several months after McDonnell -- spent 10 percent.

"With online advertising, the Obama campaign pretty much introduced it to the world in 2008," said Peter Greenberger, head of Google's industry relations. "It had been not widely used prior to his experience and in it we saw a high level of attention from the presidential level but not much below that. We've seen it come of age in the midterms. It is now accurate to say it's a key component of every campaign from congressional to senatorial to gubernatorial, to the fact that we're seeing some potential presidential candidates using Google ads."

What is transpiring right now, operatives say, is quite literally a virtual arms race among the campaigns. Either wary of being technologically disadvantaged or eager to obtain even the most incremental leverage, candidates have proven willing to throw money at the predicament.

California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman -- who has spared not a single cent in her run for office -- has been live streaming the tracker footage they get when following around Democratic candidate Jerry Brown back to campaign headquarters. Staffers at the office watch the events in real time so that the rapid response and fact checking can be, basically, instantaneous.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) adapted a video ad for smart phones targeting attendees at Minnesota's state fair, accusing her opponent Tarryl Clark of wanting to raise taxes "on your corn dog and your deep-fried bacon" -- staples of the state fair diet. More than 50% of views for that ad occurred on a mobile device, according to Ramya Raghavan, YouTube's Nonprofits and Activism Manager.

The Democratic National Committee has created iPhone and iPad applications providing users a virtual map that allows them to canvas voters immediately, no matter where they are located. And to make that canvassing easier, the committee provides a multimedia tool for the canvasser that allows them to answer voter questions with video and detailed bullet points should the sell be needed.

More recently, campaigns have begun using re-marketing technology, which essentially is a tool to continuously remind a user that they once expressed an interest in a candidate or committee, even as they explore different online searches.

"People are getting smarter and more bullish in what they are using," explained John Randall, new media director at the National Republican Campaign Committee. "There is respect and a greater understanding of how valuable this tool is... when we work with campaigns one of the things we want people to understand is you could get a good bang for your buck online."

And yet, it's not entirely clear if that buck is producing that good a bang. Take, for instance, Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware Republican who emerged from nowhere to win her party's Senate nomination. A mercurial candidate to begin with, she had virtually no online presence prior to winning the primary campaign. Still lacking that infrastructure, she managed to raise more than a $1 million within 24 hours of securing the nomination.

"It doesn't matter if you have the best website for collecting names and money," said Micah Sifry, co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum. "In a number of cases it seems that the money will flow and find their way to the candidate regardless."

The O'Donnell example deals strictly with the world of fundraising, which remains a fairly rudimentary political act. As for the more tactical functions of campaigns, operatives are still skeptical as to whether candidates really are applying online tools in the most effective fashions.

"The most disappointing thing about these midterms is how backwards so many of the campaigns are -- not simply in terms of technology, but in how they approach supporters," said Sam Graham-Felsen, Barack Obama's chief campaign blogger in 2008. "I've seen next to nothing about how ordinary people can change Washington; most of what I've seen is the same old politics that patronizes ordinary people, rather than seeking to meaningfully engage them. I've seen attack ads and responses to attack ads. It feels very 1990s."

Graham-Felsen is not the only one who has watched with dejection as the online functions that appeared to be molding a more inclusive democratic process have been turned into blunt, partisan instruments. Twitter, for instance, has become a favorite application for campaigns and committees to blast out timely messages to a wide swath of voters. But rather than engaging readers in a form of constructive engagement by, say, encouraging them to submit policy suggestions or gain a sense of ownership over a campaign function, it's become another medium to level pithy attacks against opponents.

Joe Rospars, who was, ostensibly, the tech wizard behind Obama's run for the White House, also sounded a sour note when asked to assess the state of fusion between the online and political worlds.

"I think the overall context for your question is whether candidates are using the online space to play the same tired inside-baseball games or whether they're using it to reach out to ordinary people and get them involved in a deeper, active way in the political process," he said. "These things aren't mutually exclusive -- indeed, I think we got both of these things done on our campaign in 2008 -- but too often people choose one over the other. And too much of the time they're choosing the inside game."

So who is doing it well? "Short answer," Rospars replied, "Tommy Sowers, running for Congress in Missouri (he's a client of ours on the technology side)."

And what, exactly, is Sowers doing? "Being human, really."

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