Facebook partially lifted its self-imposed ban on political ads last month, allowing campaigns, PACs, and other groups to run spots targeting Georgia voters ahead of the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs that will determine which party controls the Senate. The company said in its announcement that it believed its ad tools are “an important way for people to get information about these elections,” but it also stood to earn millions from hosting ads in the races that were on pace to become the two most expensive congressional elections ever.
Since the ban was lifted, Georgians who use Facebook and Instagram have been blasted with ads designed to win them over and make sure they turn out to vote. Google also lifted its ad ban for Georgia, allowing groups to target voters over YouTube and across its display ad network that covers a large part of the web. As voters head to the polls today, Sludge took a look at what they have been seeing on Facebook from political advertisers in the final stretch, likely reflecting weeks of experimentation and A/B testing by the groups to hone the most effective messaging. Here’s what the top digital media spending groups in the runoffs are putting the bulk of their money behind as they make their final pitch to voters.
The clearest trend among the top Facebook ads is that while the groups supporting Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are focusing on positive messages about the candidates and information about how to vote, the groups targeting potential GOP voters are going almost exclusively negative and trying to tie Warnock and Ossoff to expansive government programs and anti-police rhetoric.
The super PAC that has disclosed the most digital ad-related expenditures during the runoff, Georgia United Victory, is warning voters about the costs of progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in the Facebook ad it has paid the most to promote since Dec. 31.
“Your vote is the only thing between the socialists controlling all of Washington,” a voiceover reads after images of Stacey Abrams, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are shown. Georgia United Victory spent between $60k and $70k to run the ad on Facebook over a five day period, and it received as many as 1 million impressions during that period. The top demographic receiving the ad in their feeds has been women between the ages of 25 and 34.
Georgia United Victory is a pro-Loeffler super PAC that has been funded primarily by the senator’s wealthy husband, Intercontinental Exchange CEO and New York Stock Exchange Chairman Jeffrey Sprecher, whose contributions to the group total more than $21 million. Other Georgia United Victory donors include Citadel hedge fund founder Ken Griffin ($6 million) and a newly formed “dark money” nonprofit called Policies, Solutions, and Action for America ($2.9 million) about which next to nothing is known.
Most voters will never know who is behind the ads from Georgia United Victory or the other groups targeting them on Facebook. Georgia United Victory’s page on Facebook shows its first update on July 30, 2020 and the group has just a couple hundred followers. People who visit its website see only a donate button and a message about electing conservatives and increasing economic opportunities, with no further information about the group’s founders or activities. To aid transparency in helping voters access the funding sources behind dark money group ads, some states have laws requiring that digital ads identify the top three donors that have contributed to their sponsors.
The second-biggest digital ad spender in the races is Georgia Balance, a pro-Loeffler and Perdue super PAC that was formed on Dec. 16 and has not yet revealed any of its donors. Its top ad is a short video featuring a middle-aged, white woman who identifies herself as a Joe Biden voter and says she will be voting for Leffler and Perdue because “America needs balance.” Three different versions of the ad have been running on Facebook since Dec. 23 at a cost of up to $75,000. It is being targeted exclusively to women in Georgia.
Hillary Clinton’s former pollster Mark Penn made headlines in November for his finding that a substantial number of Biden voters do not want both Democrats to win in the Georgia runoffs because they would prefer a divided government. Penn’s private equity firm Stagwell Group is a minority stakeholder in Targeted Victory LLC, the digital firm that Georgia Balance hired to produce and place the ads.
The top pro-Democrat super PAC spender on digital ads is Georgia Honor, which supports Warnock and opposes Loeffler. Its most expensive Facebook ad in the final days before the election says that “Warnock will fight for pandemic relief” and uses a common Democratic refrain that “we need to rebuild an economy that works for everyone.” Georgia Honor, which was formed on Nov. 16, is funded by the Chuck Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC, which received $95 million from a nonprofit affiliate that does not disclose its donors called Majority Forward in the 2020 election cycle, far more than it took from any other entity.
Another top digital ad spending pro-GOP group in the Georgia runoffs is the super PAC affiliate of Winning for Women, a conservative nonprofit that says it believes in creating more opportunities for women. Its top donors in the 2020 election cycle, with $1 million contributed each, are two men—Stephens Inc. CEO Warren Stephens and Elliot Management Co-CEO Paul Singer. The group’s top Facebook ad as of this writing calls on voters to “Stop the DEFUND THE POLICE movement and vote for Kelly Loeffler.” The accompanying video talks about a push by the left to divide America by rioting and vilifying police, and pivots to the need for leaders to “move us forward” without adding any information about Loeffler’s solutions to the issues invoked in the ad.
The Rand Paul-affiliated super PAC Protect Freedom, which has spent at least $422,500 on digital ads on the runoffs, is running an ad calling on voters to “hold the line, hold your nose, vote GOP.”
“Neither party’s perfect, but one party’s promising defunded police, socialist health care, and trillions in new taxes,” the ad’s voiceover reads. Protect Freedom PAC’s top donor in the 2020 election cycle was Jeff Yass, the founder of high-frequency trading firm Susquehanna International Group.
The campaigns themselves have also spent money on Facebook ads since the ban was lifted. While neither the Loeffler or Perdue campaigns have had active ads on the site since Jan. 1, Warnock and Ossoff both have currently active ads. Warnock is running a particularly robust Facebook ad campaign, with dozens of active spots including several in Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Korean, and Hindi. The currently active ad the Warnock campaign has put the most money behind, up to $300,000, is a 6-second video with Barack Obama saying over triumphant orchestral music, “Georgia, if we want Joe Biden to be able to get things done, we need Raphael Warnock in the Senate.”
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