To Fix Digital, Democrats Should Focus on Quality not Quantity

Ameya Khanapurkar, Rebecca Grunberg, Dr. Elena Grewal


Post election day, Democratic leaders have not strengthened their majority in the House of Representatives. This result could have been the product of multiple factors, but this post focuses on Facebook spending by the individual Democratic and Republican campaigns in competitive House districts, finding that Democratic candidates in aggregate spent 1.8x more than Republican candidates on Facebook ads. We share the dataset publicly here.


This data shows that *amount* of spending is not where Democratic candidates fell behind.


We use the August 7, 2020 Cook Political Report House Race Rating to identify competitive House races and categorize races as: Likely Democratic, Lean Democratic, Democratic Toss Up, Republican Toss Up, Lean Republican, and Likely Republican. The August 7th date was chosen because it is 3 months prior to election day, giving time for candidates to raise money and allocate spend on Facebook knowing their race may be competitive. A few of the candidates moved between groups after August 7th which is indicated in the dataset.


In each group, most Democratic candidates outspent Republicans by 2-3x on Facebook, with the exception of the “Likely Republican “group which was approximately even in spending between Republican and Democrats.


Facebook shares spending in the past 7 days and then in the past 2.5 years. We collected the data on November 7th so we can share the spend November 1st-3rd for each candidate and from May 5th 2018 - November 3rd 2020.


(There are 3 uncalled races that we did not include to calculate the % of Dem wins)


There were multiple unexpected outcomes that favored Republicans over Democrats and none that favored Democrats over Republicans. Republicans won “Likely Democratic” FL-27, “Lean Democratic” TX-23, and two initially rated “Democratic Toss Up” FL-26 and SC-1 that were designated as “Lean Democratic” in the latest Cook’s report. The 27th district of Florida was the only race of these four that had the Democratic candidate outspent by the Republican candidate by a factor of 79x. The other races all had Democratic candidates spending more.


The median difference in spend is even larger if we look at spend in the last three days of the election, November 1-3 (Note: Facebook stopped political ads after November 3rd). Democrats spent even more, relatively, in the final days in the Republican leaning races, which saw a 2% success rate of flips (1 seat out of 46).


When we plot spend vs vote share, while it appears there is a slight positive correlation between Facebook spend and vote share, this is driven by races which were already rated as “Likely Democratic”.


Democrats mostly outspent Republicans across the board in their individual races, yet did not see the returns that the Democratic Party looked forward to. Whether this is a matter of effective messaging or external spending should be researched next. It is also possible that the Cook’s ratings were not accurate due to polling bias.


Additional hypotheses we could check next:

  • Messaging: Democratic messaging may be more nuanced compared to the Republican messaging, perhaps due to the coalition of progressives, moderates, and “Never Trump” Republicans that Biden assembled. For example: Police Reform means many things to the Democratic Party as a whole, whereas Republicans have rallied around the “Back the Blue” message. We can categorize messages qualitatively, and compare the amount of money invested into those messages in relation to vote share for these Democratic candidates.

  • Targeting/Ad Strategy: We can look at whether Republicans tested more ads than Democratic candidates and whether there may be differences in targeting used. This is harder to determine with the data available but we can investigate what we see.

  • External Group Spending: External group spending could have made a big difference for candidates on both sides. Additional data collection could look into spend by outside groups in a given geography and also the messaging employed by those groups.

  • Other Digital Channels: It may be that the Republicans spent more on Google ads/Youtube or other digital channels. This is additional data we can look into collecting.


Understanding the details of digital outreach and its nuances is the difference between simply throwing money at a problem and prudently looking for solutions. We look forward to hearing from you about what you think of this data and what to look at next!




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