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[BackChannel] RGA's Matt Gagnon: Standing With Scott Walker - A Digital Case Study

BY Matt Gagnon | Friday, June 15 2012

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Matt Gagnon is the digital director for the Republican Governors Association.


Short of the presidential election, the Wisconsin recall election was without a doubt the single most important political contest in 2012.

The Republican Governors Association recognized the stakes and was the largest player in the Wisconsin fight, outside of the Walker campaign itself. From the outset, the RGA knew that given the uniqueness of the electorate our strategy had to include a large, aggressive and innovative digital component.

In concert with our efforts on television and through the mail, we were able to use digital strategies to help successfully defend Scott Walker, making him the first governor in American history to survive a recall. The RGA’s efforts were among the most comprehensive, aggressive and effective digital campaigns undertaken by an independent committee on behalf of a candidate.

A Unique Race

The RGA began organizing for Wisconsin very early in 2012. Part of that organization was to evaluate the nature of the electorate through polling. That polling told us some very specific and very interesting things which indicated that the race was very different from most governor’s races.

Scott Walker had nearly 100% name ID, and more importantly, the electorate was incredibly polarized in its opinion of Walker. Roughly 48% of the electorate was initially behind Walker, and roughly the same was opposed to him. The intensity was also incredibly high. Hard support and hard opposition – that is, the voters that simply would not be moved – was an overwhelming share of those who held an opinion of the governor.

As such, the election appeared it would come down to 4-6% of the voters who were actually still undecided in some way.

Unique awareness. Unique polarization. Unique intensity. Uniquely low number of undecideds. A unique race, to say the least.


The RGA’s goal online was simple: make use of digital media to identify, target, and then influence the 4-6% of voters who were capable of being swayed in this election in ways traditional media simply could not.


The strategy for identifying persuadable voters and winning the argument was simple:

  • Define the race and the Democratic candidates online before they were capable of doing so themselves.
  • Coordinate the online campaign with our mail program and television buys to ensure maximum recall and impact on the voter.
  • Maintain an “always on” strategy with a hefty final push to make sure we continually inserted ourselves into the conversation.
  • Identify demographic characteristics within the undecided segment, and directly target them with pre-roll video messaging.
  • Make use of the specificity inherent within social network advertising to segment undecideds, and touch them with our persuasive assets.
  • Support our traditional and online ad buys with micro-sites, both pro-Walker and anti-Tom Barrett/Kathleen Falk. These sites became “Stand With Scott” and “Higher Taxes, Fewer Jobs.”

Starting Early Online

The single most important factor to potentially winning the Wisconsin recall was ensuring that the race and the candidates involved were defined on our terms.

This meant that we needed to establish a set budget for our online expenditures – which I will not explicitly state, except to say that it was substantial – and spend a significant percentage of it in the opening volley.

As such, the RGA committed 25% of its online budget to a broad cross-section of digital ads that were run in the first two weeks of our engagement in Wisconsin in March.

Our emphasis on early engagement allowed us to secure an inventory reserve of pre-roll video on YouTube with Google at a substantially discounted price. Google’s prices were substantially increasing in early spring, and by planning ahead for early expenditures, we managed to secure a large reserve buy at the old, much lower price.

These ads came at a time when the Democratic Party was still getting organized, the full slate of candidates had yet to even materialize, and their primary had yet to begin in earnest.

As an example of how seriously we took early engagement, we began targeting undecided voters with anti-Barrett messaging two weeks before Barrett even announced that he was pursuing the Democratic nomination. By the time he had jumped in the race, a coordinated campaign to define him had already been in full swing for quite some time.

By the time he entered the race, the conversation had already become about his record in Milwaukee, which included raising taxes, higher rates of unemployment and large job losses.


Going up early wasn’t enough. We needed to identify and deliver messaging to the right people in order to influence them.

Wisconsin By The Numbers
  • Display ads impressions: 17,000,000+
  • Pre-roll video impressions: 3,000,000+
  • Facebook ad impressions: 6,000,000+
  • Twitter message impressions: 2,000,000 (plus 26,000+ clicks, 160+ retweets, 100+ replies)
  • Unique visitors to microsites: 50,000+

One of the most effective means to accomplish this goal was a solution from Facebook, which allowed us to deliver video assets via a method called “exclusion targeting.” Put simply, this allowed us to specifically refrain from distributing ad messages to demographics we didn’t want to spend money on, in this case conservatives and liberals who had already made up their mind.

Additionally, the accompanying social aspects present in the ads dramatically increased their effectiveness. An undecided voter who voluntarily clicked on and watched one of our video messages themselves, after seeing that friends they trusted liked or shared the video was much more likely to have been persuaded by the interaction than a similar voter who had been forced to watch a pre-roll video message.

This combination of uniquely granular and accurate targeting, coupled with the power of social reinforcement made our Facebook campaign very successful. We had a lower raw number of video views and delivered impressions than some other methods, but the individual effectiveness of each of those views was much more useful to us.

RGA and Facebook partnered with Nielsen to conduct a study on ad effectiveness, and the results were apparent. One example that was particularly striking was the effect of our ads on women in Wisconsin. When compared with a control group, women who had seen our delivered ads indicated a rather substantial and noticeable drop (five percent) in support for Mayor Tom Barrett.

Of course, Facebook was not the only mechanism the RGA used to reach voters online. With such a tight universe of voters to reach, the RGA knew we needed to reach voters in multiple locations, in several different ways. For that reason we had a broad strategy that included display ads, pre-roll, promoted messages on Twitter, and other methods.

Our display ad strategy made use of a more specific voter target method than the traditional age and demographic targeting. We wanted to define the audience based on a combination of attitudinal and traditional characteristics including but not limited to values, issue positions, political involvement, and cookie behavior.

This refinement allowed us to tailor a more effective ad strategy that bought less expensive (but more effective) ads on sites that are not traditionally used for political campaigns. In short, the RGA attempted to make use of a more sophisticated method of finding undecided voters and serving display ads to them. Our efforts were very successful.

Coordination With TV and Mail

To ensure the strongest recall from voters, our online campaign was fluid, and was designed to match the timing and branding of our mail program, and our television advertisements.

As an example of the coordination, when a new ad was put up on the air in Wisconsin, RGA immediately swapped out the video assets to match the television buy, submitted new display ad creative to match, altered the search ads, and even revised the microsites that had been created to hold our opposition research.

This meant that when a potential voter in Wisconsin turned on their television, they saw an ad which was reinforced by a piece of mail they had just been delivered, a pre-roll video they saw on YouTube, a tailored message they saw on Facebook, a banner ad they saw on a news site, and a search ad they found when their curiosity led them to want to learn more about the recall.

This holistic approach was designed to increase recall and recognition, so that the message we were trying to reach them with actually sunk in.

Taking Advantage of Critical Campaign Junctures

While we maintained an ‘always on’ strategy that kept a consistent spending target from week to week, RGA did quickly change tactics and adjust online spending based on unique moments in the campaign.

The four main events that led to a rapid response and more aggressive online engagement were the aforementioned candidacy announcement by Tom Barrett, Barrett’s victory in the primary, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s endorsement of Governor Walker and news of improved job creation numbers in the state.

Two of these events (Barrett’s announcement and the primary results) were anticipated and planned for, while the Journal Sentinel’s endorsement was not. In each instance, we were provided high profile opportunities to seize on major campaign related stories, and help steer the narrative to our advantage.

As already mentioned, we bracketed the Barrett announcement for two weeks prior and one after to immediately define him. When Barrett won the primary, we ramped up our buy on platforms like Twitter, to overwhelm the conversations taking place relating to the recall. We also increased video buys and display ad delivery to match during those key times.

Of particular note was the endorsement. The RGA immediately cut a thirty-second ad touting the endorsement, and robust online buys to swing voters commenced in an attempt to “catch lightning in a bottle” and maximize the impact of the endorsement.

The RGA also seized on updated job creation numbers that showed Wisconsin had added more than 30,000 jobs since Governor Walker took office. Early in the campaign, the Democrats had been using older jobs numbers to paint a far bleaker job creation picture. By focusing resources on promoting the improved jobs numbers, the RGA helped Governor Walker secure a major advantage among voters who ranked job creation as the most important issue – a large share of the electorate.

The Final Push

Saving a significant portion of the online budget for the final week of the campaign was as important as defining Barrett early. All of the online investments made by the RGA in the early stages of the campaign would have been wasted if we were unable to maintain the advantage in the late stages.

A few weeks before Election Day, it became clear that Governor Walker had indeed gained an advantage, with consistent leads outside the margin of error in a half dozen polls. To protect that lead, RGA’s online campaign had built in a late surge of spending, meant to reinforce our early campaign.

As the media began to portray the race as tightening in the last few days of the election, our ability to counter-message and ensure that our argument remained on the minds of the exact voters we needed to remain on our side was key to ensuring victory.

In the end, Governor Walker defeated Tom Barrett by a margin of more than 171,000 votes. His victory was primarily due to his own phenomenally run campaign, and the support he received from groups like the Republican Governors Association.

What we did online was tactical, it was efficient, and though it was a significant investment, represented one of the most effective uses of campaign dollars this year.