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Google's Preparing for Super PAC Spending Online in 2012

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, January 9 2012

Photo: Flickr/TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

Typing into his Chrome browser last Friday night, William Smith, a 42-year-old conservative blogger living in Merrimack, New Hampshire, searched for the term “New Hampshire primaries.”

An ad for a YouTube video for something called “Endorse Liberty” popped up as the top search result.

“That’s a PAC for Ron Paul, they’ve been doing a lot of advertising around here,” said Smith, a Mitt Romney supporter.

To the casual observer, the spot might look like just any other innocuous web ad — but it's evidence of something new. Endorse Liberty is a "Super PAC," an entity capable of raising and spending unlimited amounts of money on behalf of a campaign, with limited disclosure. Thanks to a pair of court decisions in 2009 and 2010, Super PAC money has already flooded airwaves in Iowa with television and radio ads for and against several candidates. Now that money is headed online, as Google gears up to place more search advertising from independent groups.

So far Endorse Liberty has been an outlier in placing Google ads, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. There haven't been many other search-ad takers just yet from among the independent groups. But Google clearly hopes that the pro-Paul group are simply among the early adopters.

“In 2010, independent expenditure groups had a limited budget, but we’re already seeing that 2012 is going to be big,” said Google's Sean Harrison, whose title at the search giant, tellingly, is head of advertising sales for independent expenditures.

As of January 8th, 269 groups organized as Super PACs have registered with the FEC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They’ve already raised more than $32 million in the 2012 election cycle, and have already spent more than half of that amount on advertising, the center reports.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, the author of several books about presidential campaign communications, and the founder of and the new video-based campaign ad fact-checking site She says the profligacy of these groups may benefit companies like Google.

“They obviously expect so much money to be spent that some of it will spill onto the web,” Jamieson told me recently.

Google has created a firewall between candidate campaign advertising and independent expenditure groups, says Rob Saliterman, Google’s head of advertising sales to Republican political campaigns and conservative issue advocacy groups. FEC rules prohibit candidate campaigns from co-ordinating with the Super PACs. When Google gives strategic advice, it keeps information compartmentalized — for example, Saliterman would not be talking to a candidate and a pro-candidate Super PAC at the same time.

Not all of those Super PACs will necessarily focus on the presidential election. They may focus on specific issues and candidates down the ballot. Google wants to be in a position to advise those groups on how to use its various ad programs strategically and most effectively, says Saliterman.

Last Fall, the company hired Harrison from Citizen United Productions, the now-famous (some would say notorious) conservative non-profit group that sued the Federal Election Commission to free itself from the commission’s restrictions on fundraising and electioneering on behalf of political candidates. While there, he was director of state relations and helped the group to manage its finances.

Advertising on the platforms is largely an automated process, but the companies generally employ ad sales reps to provide clients with strategic advice.

Saliterman compares search advertising to placing a restaurant's billboard ad on a highway just before a hungry driver drives past.

“It’s very different from trying to reach someone when they’re eating dinner and the phone rings,” he says.

The efficiency factor is why targeted digital advertising makes special sense for campaigns that are expected to be outspent by other campaigns with deeper pockets, said Jordan Lieberman, managing director of politics and advocacy at CampaignGrid, an online advertising company in Washington, D.C.

The company helps candidates and advocacy groups target ads at voters online.

“VideoGrid,” one of its products, helps candidates and other entities to reach voters by mapping and correlating voter registration and demographic information to internet data.

Statistics from the Pew Research Center also make the case: A 2009 report showed that just over half of the U.S. population went online in 2008 to “get involved in the political process or to get news and information about the election.” And of those who use the Internet, almost half of the population went online in 2008 to watch a video related to a political campaign.

A third of those “Internet users” shared political content with others. Per Pew, voters also consider the Internet to be just as important as newspapers as a source of information.

Lieberman wouldn’t disclose which campaigns the company is currently working for, but FEC records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that the Endorse Liberty PAC paid CampaignGrid $50,000 on December 29, 2011 for online advertising.

It's not hard to imagine that Endorse Liberty PAC has been trying to reach people exactly like William Smith, who was in Merrimack, New Hampshire on Friday evening, just a few days away from the state’s primary.

As a registered independent Caucasian male voter in the information technology industry who had voted in the 2008 Republican presidential primary in the libertarian-leaning state of New Hampshire, many data available about Smith might paint him as a receptive audience for Paul’s message.

It turns out that's not the case. After an in-person chat with the candidate himself at an old-school “Politics and Eggs” breakfast event four years ago, Smith decided the Texas libertarian wasn't for him.

“In my last conversation with him, he talked about wanting to close the Justice Department, and end the notion of all federal crime,” Smith recalls. “It made me take a step back and ask: “Congressman, what would you do if a child were kidnapped, or there was a murder that crossed state lines?”

Smith says that Paul responded by saying that he would leave the states to co-ordinate law-enforcement agencies’ response to such cases.

“I said: ‘That’s great, but Maine and New Hampshire can’t even agree on their own border and had to take it up all the way to the Supreme Court. What makes you think that they could co-ordinate in a relatively speedy amount of time on a child-kidnapping?’”

Smith says that Paul “essentially” shrugged his shoulders and said: “That’s their problem.”

Smith heartily disagrees with that response and several other policies espoused by Paul, whom he characterizes as “crazy.”

Nevertheless, he says, he’s not surprised that Super PACs are starting to reach out to try and persuade him through digital media.

“As people become increasingly mobile, I think that content must [go digital] and increase the footprint that Super PACs have.”