In the run-up to next year’s political primaries and the general election, if you don’t know who voted early, you’re wasting impressions. You’re throwing money away. It’s just that simple.
With Election Day 2024 just 15 months away and lots of primary battles in the meantime, political advertising spend is expected to exceed the $14.4 billion spent in the 2020 general election, which was itself more than double the 2016 outlay. And the major disruptor again will likely remain the absentee and mail-in voters.
At least 101 million people voted early in the 2020 presidential election. This means that if you were targeting registered voters near Election Day, 65% had already voted, and 65% of your media budget was wasted on impressions at that time. We’re talking an estimated hundreds of millions in wasted digital ad spend.
And it gets better—or worse depending on your point of view. Based on Stirista’s data insights, more than 72 million U.S. citizens voted early in the 2022 midterms, either through ballot requests or via confirmed early voting, a 92% increase from the 2018 midterm election cycle. What’s now essential for political advertisers is to identify these early voters and focus on the prospective voters who remain.
Addressing the swing voter
There’s been a general perception that people who haven’t voted yet are waiting until the last moment to decide. That may be, and campaigns can and should target uncommitted voters continuously.
Call them swing voters if you wish, and all analyses indicate that these people are crucial to any election. Elections are changing in response to the independent vote’s growing importance. To win their votes, campaigns need demographic information about this voter base well before they cast their ballots.
These are the voters who do not vote early. They bide their time and await new information about the candidates. They are your key election targets.
Stirista has developed a solution that gathers data from early and absentee ballot requests to isolate those undecided voters who remain. Consider those who request a mail-in or absentee ballot. Sometimes it’s self-reported, but there also are signals online, including social media, that can corroborate these ballot requests.
During primaries, our system places a heightened emphasis on targeting these voters based on historical voting patterns, demographic data and predicted political leanings. Come the general election, this focus intensifies as the pool of potential voters expands and the stakes get higher.
Also, since the political landscape can dramatically shift from primaries to the general election, our technology recalibrates its targeting parameters. For instance, a voter who is inclined to vote early during primaries might behave differently during general elections. Our system dynamically updates this behavior pattern and quickly removes early/absentee audiences, ensuring that digital advertising remains relevant and impactful.
Perhaps the biggest question of the upcoming primaries and the general election is whether the early voter trend will continue. Will people return to in-person Election Day voting or continue to vote early, via whatever method? Let’s face it, such trends as online shopping, curbside pickup and more that characterized the pandemic years may moderate a bit, but these are becoming the new norm. Voting will probably be no different.
In my experience, the potential for optimization and better spending at scale is unique to the political ad space. With frequent updating due to proprietary technology—knowing who’s voting and when—there is new value being brought to the marketplace that can be used by agencies and media buyers who want to do right by their clients.
What’s your action plan?
It’s simple: Start early. That’s super important, because a lot of times the ad budget gets determined and the spend tends to happen closer to the election. But our data suggests that you should strive to know who you’re looking to target, taking into account historical voting patterns.
There are plenty of macro signals available to us, which includes the impact of AI and large language models making their appearance in the messaging. And of course it’s already possible to power political ads with our identity-driven voter segments, including party affiliation, candidate supporters, political issues, voting frequency, party changers and more.
But if you can manage the meat and the potatoes correctly—that is, who’s going to vote and when they’re going to do it, so you can target the critical swing voters who remain—that will provide critical data on who should be targeted before they make their critical decisions.
For a political marketer working for a campaign or through an agency, early voter consideration is now a must in driving results and decreasing wasted digital ad spend. With early voting growing in popularity and with billions of dollars earmarked for upcoming presidential primaries and the general election, further investment in critical voter-data segmentation is essential.
- Originally published in AdAge, September 2023