#VAGov is neck and neck...or is it?
Also inside: one of the most brutal delegate ads we’ve seen this cycle
Welcome to FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in the 2021 Virginia statewide and legislative elections. Each week, we look at how campaigns are investing in digital engagement and the online tactics they use to reach voters across the Commonwealth. Was this email forwarded to you? Click here to subscribe.
Election Day is just 12 days away, and the latest poll out of Monmouth University has #VAGov tied at 46-46. We should also note this Monmouth poll from the same point in 2017 which showed the Democratic candidate losing, so take this with a grain of salt. 🤷🏻♂️ That said, Youngkin appears to be benefiting from some level of a Democratic enthusiasm gap, and it’s clear that elections around the Commonwealth may wind up closer than expected.
With the election just around the corner, we breakdown campaigns’ last-minute persuasion and turnout tactics in this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia.
Top of the Ticket
FWIW, here’s how post-primary spending on Facebook and Google ads stacks up in the Governor’s race:
In the general election, Terry McAuliffe’s campaign has spent nearly $4.2 million on Facebook + Google ads, while Youngkin’s campaign has dropped around $1.6 million.
Last week, we covered how both gubernatorial campaigns are shifting their digital programs towards mobilization, but both campaigns continue to run persuasion campaigns deep into October. Terry McAuliffe’s campaign continues to hammer home COVID-19 messaging focused on Youngkin’s reluctance to support vaccination mandates. An August poll from Change Research/Crooked Media found that nearly 60% of voters support mask and vaccination mandates, but it’s an open question of how salient those issues still are with swing voters.
Meanwhile, GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin’s digital team is going hyper-local in a new series of ads. Facebook doesn’t disclose geographic targeting beyond the state-level, but it appears that Youngkin’s team is making an explicit pitch to voters who live near Virginia power plants telling them that they’ll be out of a job under a McAuliffe administration. We’ve seen local targeting from McAuliffe’s campaign earlier in the year as well, but hats off to the Youngkin team for this smart tactic.
With both candidates also trying to motivate their base voters to turn out in an off-year election, we thought we’d break down how often each candidate is invoking their opponent and other national figures in their ads.
Of the ~8,780 Facebook ads run by Terry McAuliffe…
~3,140 (35%) mention Youngkin
~2,240 (25.5%) mention Trump
~405 (4.6%) mention Joe Biden
And of the ~1,700 Facebook ads run by Glenn Youngkin…
~450 (26%) mention McAuliffe
~48 (2.8%) mention Trump
Only 1, from the GOP nomination contest, mentions Joe Biden
This quick breakdown highlights the challenges each candidate is facing in the increasingly Democratic-leaning commonwealth. Even with Trump out of office, McAuliffe continues to use Trump to try to turn out the electorate that delivered Democratic victories in 2017 and 2019. Meanwhile, Youngkin is trying to juice his base through culture war issues like “critical race theory” and “defund the policy” without explicitly nationalizing the race by mentioning figures like Trump or Biden.
Along those lines, the McAuliffe campaign’s in-house creative team produced and released this strong video ad earlier this week, laying out the stakes of the election through the lens of Charlottesville and January 6th.
Zooming out, here is how total digital ad spending (national and local targeting) on Facebook and Google stacked up this week in Virginia’s statewide races.
Hala Ayala continues to have Facebook and Google to herself, as GOP Lt. Governor nominee Winsome Sears still hasn’t run a single digital ad since the GOP convention. Ayala’s campaign is running a pseudo-news clip cobbled together from a CNN interview highlighting Sears’ refusal to disclose her vaccination status. It fits in well with Ayala’s narrative that Sears is too dangerous and too extreme to become Virginia’s next Lt. Governor, and it’s a narrative that Sears is yet to push back on online.
Across the Commonwealth
Here are the top 10 spenders specifically targeting Facebook users in Virginia last week.
ProgressVA is continuing to ramp up its digital presence in the final weeks of the race, spending big on persuasion and turnout-focused digital ads down the stretch. Some of their persuasion programs are being run through several localized pages that use their statewide disclaimer - a creative tactic attempting to more effectively persuade voters by appearing to come from a “local” brand/messenger. The group deployed the same tactic in 2019.
We’re also tracking cumulative digital ad spending across the state, including spending from candidates for statewide offices, competitive or potentially competitive Delegate races (any race under a 15 point margin in 2019), and partisan outside groups with spending specifically targeted at Virginia elections.
House of Delegates
While statewide races and outside groups dominate most of the spending across the commonwealth, digital ad spending in delegate races continues to climb each week. Here’s how total Facebook + Google ad spending from delegate candidates from each party stacks up:
And here’s the top 10 delegate campaign spenders on Facebook + Google over the past week:
Chris Hurst’s campaign was among the top spenders on Facebook and Google this week, and their latest ad is a doozy. The ad attacks GOP nominee Jason Ballard over his role in defending a middle school coach convicted of soliciting underage girls - it’s a devastating attack that’s particularly brutal by the standards of your typical delegate race.
Thanks for reading this week’s FWIW Virginia! We’re so excited to be back following these critical elections in the Commonwealth. If you enjoy reading this type of content each week, we hope you’ll support our work by clicking share and tweeting out this newsletter below! As always, email us with ideas of what you’d like us to dive into next.
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