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Where Money Meets New Media: A Virginia Governor's Race Postmortem

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, November 10 2009

Television is still king. Printed mailers are second in line to the throne. And somewhere, waiting out in the castle courtyard, is the joker that is new media.

That's the lesson from a close reading of the campaign finance reports filed in the race for the Governor's mansion in Virginia, a race which ended with Republican ex-State Attorney General Bob McDonnell trumping Democratic State Senator Creigh Deeds, McDonnell with 59% of the vote to Deeds' 41%. Overall, McDonnell outspent Deeds some $19.6 million to $15.3 million (despite the fact that McDonnell had no real opposition for his party's nomination). But when it came to pouring money into TV and radio, the two candidates were on fairly even footing. According to records provided and helpfully categorized by the Virginia Public Access Project, both the winner and loser in the Virginia gubernatorial race dropped some $10 million on television and radio ads, making up 49% of the Republican's total spending through October 21st, the date of the most recent campaign finance filings, and 65% of the Democrat's full budget. When it comes to traditional mail, McDonnell paid out some $1.5 million in printed mailers, including the cost of postage. Deeds spent about half a million.

Then we move on down the line to new media.

There are those close to the '09 Virginia governor's race who will tell you that Deeds was simply outmatched online by McDonnell and the web of consultants he reached out to -- and funded -- throughout the course of the campaign. It's a disparity that grew worse as the Deeds campaign struggled to the finish line, and advisors with the Democratic campaign poured more money into the more traditional mediums of television and radio. In the first three weeks of October, for example, Deeds poured more than $3 million into television and radio ads. According to Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) filings, Deeds dedicated just over $117,000 or so to online politicking through late October.

In other words, Deeds spent on TV in the campaign's closing weeks alone more than twenty five times what he dropped on the Internet and other digital efforts over the course of his entire bid for the governor's mansion.

For its part, the McDonnell campaign reported just slightly less than $659,000 in new media spending, though what slots in under that banner is somewhat fuzzy. As to what gets counted as Internet-related expenditures, "That is information that the candidate would have provided himself," said VPAP's database manager Jason Ford.

McDonnell, for example, paid out more than $630,000 in "new media" services to Chatham Light Media and Dirt Road Productions, companies which, according to their websites, seem to specialize in your more traditional arts of film and TV ad production. Both companies are affiliated with McAuliffe Media Message. The company's creative director, Doug McAuliffe, reported via email that his firm "did both traditional and new media for the campaign," including "all the web design development, management, and advertising as well." McAuliffe declined to elaborate further. The McDonnell campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.

That mention of "advertising" is important. Making sense of disclosure reports when it comes to new media requires understanding how online ads work when it comes to politics. Nate Wilcox is a senior strategist with the WebStrong Group, a firm that works in online politics, including online advertising.* WebStrong worked on Virginia Delegate Brian Moran's race during the Democratic primary. "Presumably the firms placing the (woefully small) online ad buys in the Virginia governors race," said Wilcox, "took a 5 to 10% commission for placing the ads." To put it another way, only some fraction of what a campaign pays out to an online ad buyer actually goes into the pocket of the firm.

It was, in fact, online ads -- according to the records and those familiar with the campaign -- that attracted the bulk of Deeds' digital dollars. The Democratic campaign paid out just less than $80,000 to Cicero Interactive/Bully Pulpit Interactive, a firm headed by Andrew Bleeker. Bleeker directed online advertising for the Obama for America campaign and was a veteran of the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Bleeker also directed the web presence of the Obama-Biden inauguration. Before switching to billing through Bleeker's firm in early September, Deeds placed some of its own ad buys, spending $3,900 on Facebook ads and $4,900 in Google ads, beginning with first buys in early May. McDonnell, in addition to his online ad dollars funneled through consultants, sent $5,000 directly Facebook's way.

Other firms with major roles in the 2008 Virginia governor's race include Blackrock Associates, a Berkeley, California-based firm that grew out of the Wes Clark for President campaign, spent time on Jim Webb's Senate successful bid, and which specializes in email fundraising and online marketing. According to VPAP records, Deeds directed some $36,000 Blackrock's way, as they worked with the campaign's on-the-ground new media staff to develop and execute strategy. On the McDonnell side, the Republican candidate paid out just under $61,000 to Engage DC, the firm headed up by techPresident contributors Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini, for strategic development, fundraising, and GOTV efforts. Each campaign had an in-house new media director. In the Deeds camp, it was Eli Kaplan. And for McDonnell, Vince Harris headed new media operations.

Deeds directed $24,000 to NGP Software, a provider of campaign management tools. After winning the Democratic primary, Deeds began a relationship with the Palo Alto, California-based Mayfield Strategy Group for, according to the records, consulting and web design services. Mayfield, by late October, had collected some $55,000 from the Deeds campaign. Mayfield is headed up by Josh Ross, who directed John Kerry's Internet strategy in his 2004 presidential campaign. Ross also spent time working with the Clinton campaign in 2008.

Then there's mobile, and area that McDonnell was seen by many to shine in during the campaign. He outspent Deeds on that front, at least. McDonnell paid out $130,000 to Tusk Mobile, whose work for the campaign we profiled earlier. Deeds worked with Revolution Messaging, directing some $22,500 their way. Revolution is led, in part, by Scott Goodstein, who directed Obama for America's ground-breaking mobile program.

Virginia is something of an campaign-finance odd ball, though lucky enough for us. Besides being located in the backyard of Washington DC -- making the state is often a lab for the latest techniques and tactics of the political consultant class -- Virginia doesn't restrict campaign financing in any way. Instead, the state relies upon transparency to provide a check. "The prevailing wisdom in the Virginia General Assembly is that disclosure is more effective than regulation," explains the Virginia Public Access Project's website, which then takes those disclosed records and makes them easily accessible by the public. We're the beneficiaries, in the form of easily parsable data on who spends what and where in Virginia politics.

And it is from VPAP that we can get a sense of how Deeds and McDonnell's online spending stack up, and what's clear is that even Deeds meager outlay this cycle represents more of an investment in the Internet than we've seen in recent years. Current Virginia Governor Tim Kaine spent just $34,000 on online services in 2005, out of a total budget of about $20 million. His opponent, former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, spent even less of more -- some $12,000 out of $24 million. In the 2001 Virginia governor's race, now-Senator Mark Warner dropped $42,000 in online work out of about $20 million. And out of a total $11 million spent, Warner's Republican opponent, Mark Earley, spent just $6,200 online.

The next wave of financial disclosure reports, including those covering spending during the final days of the race, are due December 3rd.

(*Disclosure: I should mention that I once worked with Nate and consider him a friend, though no guarantees on what he considers me.)