Virginia Political Groups and Candidates Like Facebook Ads

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You might call it the Facebook Election.

Many voters are “cutting the cord” from cable TV, and candidates and political organizations are turning to Facebook to attract Virginia voters in Tuesday’s legislative and local elections.

Between July 1 and Oct. 25, Facebook users in Virginia were bombarded with about $6 million in political advertising, according to the social media company.

Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that seeks to restrict access to firearms and curb gun violence, has spent the most — about $215,000 — on Facebook ads. The group, largely financed by New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg, announced Friday that it has spent $2.5 million in the Virginia election, including $770,000 in digital advertising.

People’s Power Grab, which advocates for voter registration and mobilization, bought about $208,000 in advertising on Facebook. The Dogwood, a Virginia digital media outlet, was third at more than $170,000.

It is no surprise why advocacy groups and politicians are turning to Facebook. It’s the most popular social media platform and can deliver ads targeted to users based on gender, age and other demographics — at a cost much less than television.

Washington State University professor Travis Ridout says Facebook’s ability to reach a majority of Americans makes it attractive to political campaigns.

“Facebook also allows [a] campaign many different ways to target voters, making it an efficient way to reach desired audiences,” said Ridout, who teaches government and public policy.

Judi Crenshaw, public relations instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says Facebook’s low cost and micro-targeting makes it appealing to campaigns with a limited staff and budget.

“It’s very, very efficient because you actually don’t have to waste time and money on people who will already vote for your candidate. You don’t have to waste time or money on people who will never vote for your candidate,” Crenshaw said.

“You can zero right in on the people who can be swayed either way. In terms of convincing them, there’s a whole path you can go down in terms of deciding if keeping people at home, or turning people out who will benefit your candidate.”

Facebook has posted data about advertising purchases in its Ad Library. The data show that over a recent 90-day period, about 1,860 candidates and groups spent $5.5 million on Facebook ads in Virginia. An additional 11,000 ad buys targeting Virginians were for $100 or less; for those small purchases, Facebook does not disclose the exact amount.

Less was spent on Facebook ads in Virginia’s bordering states. For example, Maryland had about $2.1 million in Facebook ad purchases.

The state with the most money spent on political advertising was California with $17,243,441.

President Donald Trump’s Facebook spending was compiled from two committees: The Trump Make America Great Again Committee spent about $104,000 targeting Virginians on Facebook, and Donald J. Trump for President Inc. spent $23,771.

Other top spenders include Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer at around $134,000 in Facebook ads, Pete Buttigieg at $93,000 and Elizabeth Warren at $45,000.

Candidates for the Virginia House and Senate have also had their share of Facebook advertising.

Republican Del. Nick Freitas spent the most since July 1 — more than $43,000. Freitas currently represents House District 30, which includes Madison and Orange counties and part of Culpeper County. He is running as a write-in candidate after he filed incomplete paperwork to appear on the ballot.

Missy Cotter Smasal, a Democrat, is running in Senate District 8 in Hampton Roads. Cotter Smasal spent around $38,000 on Facebook ads. The incumbent, Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph, bought less than $2,000 in Facebook ads.

Republican Tim Hugo was also high in Facebook spending at more than $36,000. The incumbent has served in House District 40 — which covers parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties — since 2003. Since Oct. 25, Hugo bought about $18,000 more in Facebook ads, and his Democratic challenger, Dan Helmer, spent about $28,000 on Facebook.

Democratic Del. Cheryl Turpin is running for the Senate District 7, which covers most of Virginia Beach and part of Norfolk. She spent around $34,000 on Facebook ads between July 1 and Oct. 25.

In Senate District 12 in the Richmond area, Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant spent about $31,000 on Facebook ads during that time frame and another $10,000 since then. Her opponent, Democratic Del. Debra Rodman, has bought about $18,000 in Facebook ads since July 1.

Hannah Eason / Capital News Service