The Web's Role in the Current Election

| About: TNS, Inc. (TNS)

For the past year I’ve offered analysis on this and other questions relating to the ongoing presidential election. I recently had the opportunity to speak on the topic at Compete’s Client Forum. I was privileged to have been joined on the stage by Evan Tracey, COO of TNS Media/CMAG. Those that follow the election have likely seen Evan on the major news networks providing insight into how the campaigns are spending their advertising dollars.

I started things off by presenting data to highlight how the Internet landscape has been transformed in the four years that have elapsed since we were discussing Swift Boat Veterans and President Bush’s National Guard service. At this time four years ago, the words facebook, twitter, youtube and flickr had yet to enter our lexicon. These sites, as well as their rivals and imitators, have seen incredible growth in a short amount of time.

As voters have gravitated to these sites, the candidates have rushed to embrace the platforms as tools to more effectively engage and organize their supporters as well as solicit campaign contributions. All of the major candidates made at least a cursory attempt to have a presence on these social networking and video sites this election. However, the Democrats have far exceeded their cross-aisle rivals (Ron Paul’s efforts being a noted exception) in leveraging the power of these tools to their advantage.

Compete’s FaceTime metric looks across candidates’ official websites, social networking and video sites to assess the degree to which the candidates have used these new channels to earn time with voters. The data suggests that Barack Obama’s online advantage was evident a year before the first votes were ever cast, giving him the financial muscle and breadth of support to compete against Hillary Clinton’s presumed inevitability. contrast, the race among Republicans was much more fluid, with John McCain wining despite an apparent lack of a cohesive online strategy. McCain’s nomination seems in large part due to social conservative infighting, and specifically the right’s failure to coalesce around a single candidate.

All this online time with voters indeed matters, not only at the polls, but particularly at the coffer: Roughly 80% of the $131 million Barack Obama raised during the first quarter was raised online, compared to less than a quarter of McCain’s modest $38 million in total contributions.

While huge amounts of money are being raised online, Even Tracey detailed the fact the very little is being funneled back to the web in the form of advertising. In the world of political advertising, TV still reigns supreme.

Since the start of the current race for the White House in February 2007, $238 million of television advertisements related to the presidential race have aired. Well-funded Democratic candidates and Democratic-leading special interest groups have outspent their GOP rivals by a more than 2 to 1 margin. During this time, only $4 million has been spent online, mostly by the candidates to solicit campaign contributions and drive grass-roots efforts.

For all the attention the web has received over the past decade, campaigns continue to view TV as a more efficient means of informing and influencing voters, particularly those that are undecided about who to support. CMAG forecasts $3 billion will be spent on campaign advertising this election year across the various presidential, state and federal races both by candidates themselves, their respective parties, as well as well-funded special interest groups.

Evan also noted an interesting relationship between the timing of political advertising and the number of undecided voters these ads reach. As the majority of advertising occurs 60 days before an election, the marginal cost of influencing voters climbs dramatically as these ads chase a dwindling number of undecided voters.

While the power of the web from an organizational and fundraising perspective has been made abundantly clear this election, judging by where the candidates are placing their advertising bets, campaigns remain skeptical of the web as a medium for finding, let alone influencing prized undecided voters.

To political junkies and novices alike, I’ll pose these questions, and welcome your responses:

  • How can the GOP compete with the Democrat’s online muscle?
  • Are online political advertisements effective?
  • Will facebook and MySpace supporters turn out to vote in November?