Most of the discussion around Ted Cruz's decisive win of the Republican nomination for Senate from Texas involves a swell of grassroots support from Tea Party activists. But conservative super PACs did their part online, including Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Endorse Liberty, the group founded to support Texas congressman Ron Paul in the presidential race.
Anti-tax group Club for Growth appears to have been the biggest online ad spender, plunking down $432,000 on digital ads and communications in June and July, according to ClickZ's analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.
In all, super PACs spent nearly $700,000 on digital ads in June and July to back Cruz and oppose his rival, Republican David Dewhurst in the Republican primary runoff election.
Endorse Liberty, the pro-Paul group that temporarily disappeared from the super PAC presidential spending landscape once Mitt Romney had all but clinched the nomination, leapt back into the game to support Cruz. As with the young organization's efforts for Paul, most if not all of Endorse Liberty's budget to help Cruz went online. For the runoff race, the group dropped all of its money on Facebook ads - nearly $143,000 worth during June and July.
Tea Party group FreedomWorks for America was another big online backer for Cruz, spending $83,000 on digital ads.
The Cruz camp itself has been noticed for its attention to social media, but also did its share of online ad spending. "We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on online ads," said Vincent Harris, whose firm Harris Media is handling digital efforts for the Cruz campaign.
The campaign spent the bulk of its digital dollars on search ads, Facebook ads promoting videos, and contextual display ads targeted to pages featuring articles about key topics associated with the race including Transportation Security Administration hand searches.
Club for Growth Attacked Online for Cruz
Cruz got a lot of help online from Club for Growth. Republican-leaning digital shop Target Interactive aimed ads pegging Dewhurst as a moderate to "uber conservatives" in Texas. The firm relied heavily on 10- and 15-second video ads, but spread the Club for Growth message around in display and search ads, on Facebook, and in mobile search.
The agency targeted some ads using voter data through Republican digital firm Campaign Grid to reach registered Republicans - an obviously important group to hit during a GOP primary. However, other ads were aimed to people based on their interests on sites attracting faith-based audiences and hunters, for instance.
Ads calling Dewhurst a tax-raising, big-spending moderate were used earlier on to persuade voters that he wasn't right for Texas. In the final week, however, Club for Growth culminated the campaign with a heavy get-out-the-vote effort. GOTV ads "spiked heavily" in the final week or so, said Jonas Kleiner, managing partner at Target Interactive, the firm that handled digital advertising for Club for Growth in support of Cruz.
Knowing which messages were resonating best in certain pockets of the Lone Star State, the Cruz camp got even more specific in its messaging than Club for Growth, targeting ads with issue-based messages at particular geographic areas. According to Harris, TSA-related ads ran online in Houston, while ads featuring a fiscal spending message were aimed at another part of the state.
Palin, Beck, and the TSA Drove Digital Messaging
Cruz argued that his primary opponent David Dewhurst should have backed a Texas law that would have made pat-downs by TSA agents illegal. Another key issue in the race involved Cruz's legal work in a patent dispute between a Chinese firm and an American.
The campaign also aggressively targeted voters over age 75. On Facebook, Harris said he used the site's ability to target ads to those 65 and over.
The Cruz camp also targeted Sarah Palin fans on Facebook. Palin gave Cruz a boost when she endorsed him in May. "We went up with a Twitter ad around people talking about her...a fundraising tweet targeted to searches on Palin and that ad raised money...that sort of advertising is very under-utilized in politics," said Harris.
In addition to galvanizing support and persuading voters that Cruz was the right pick, the come-from-behind campaign focused on digital ads to drive donations, too. But in some cases it was an integrated approach to traditional and digital media that did the trick, said Harris. Because the campaign's digital team was well-integrated with the rest of the campaign staff, Harris was aware of Cruz's upcoming media appearances. So, if Cruz was scheduled to be on Glenn Beck's radio show, the digital team created a splash page on the Cruz website welcoming his fans.
"We raised millions of dollars online," said Harris, calling the splash page shout-out to offline fans "a missed opportunity for most political campaigns."
In the last two days of the runoff campaign, 140 percent more Club for Growth ads ran compared to the rest of the campaign, said Amanda Bloom, senior account manager at Target Interactive. "That gives you an idea of how much the conservative audience in Texas was completely blanketed with ads" during the last two days, she continued.
The organization also attracted a lot of mobile searches in the last couple days including on voting day when people were looking up last-minute information, and tablet access was big. According to Bloom, the highest percentage of mobile viewers to Club for Growth's Cruz page came from iPad users.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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