Texas Senate Candidate Beto O’Rourke has spent more on Facebook advertisements than any other politician in the country other than Donald Trump, according to data analysis by New York University computer scientists.
The study published Wednesday by NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering is the first in-depth analysis of Facebook political advertising since Facebook began disclosing political advertisers in May.
From May to July, Beto O’Rourke spent $194,400 on 377 political advertisements on Facebook, giving him 13 million impressions with Facebook users, the largest ad spend by any mid-term candidate.
The largest political spender overall was Donald Trump, who is not up for reelection until 2020, but whose Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Donald J. Trump for President organization nonetheless spent $190,400 and $83,700, respectively.
O’Rourke’s spending on Facebook pairs with a strategy of grassroots campaign events throughout Texas and media interviews with local broadcasters and newspapers that allow him to present himself and explain his views as a candidate without spending on media buys.
Some of O’Rourke’s Facebook ads aim to boost turnout at already planned campaign events. “Come join Congressman Beto O’Rourke for a Town Hall in Rockport!” reads one. “Join us for an organizing rally in Stephenville…!” reads another.
The El Paso Democrat has spoken skeptically about spending much of his $14 million campaign chest on traditional television advertisements, calling it a costly and non-targeted way of reaching voters. He is also known for filming and broadcasting his own social media live streams.
Some of the O’Rourke Facebook ads are targeted at supporters with the aim of raising money. One such ad that began running earlier this week calls on supporters to pitch in five or ten dollars each, saying, “when hundreds of thousands of people all give a little bit, it adds up in a big way. And that’s exactly how we’re going to beat Ted Cruz.”
Outside groups also ran Facebook ads to raise money for O’Rourke. End Citizens United is currently running ads targeted to Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, and people in other states, calling for donations to O’Rourke, whom the ad says is “within striking distance” of his rival Senator Ted Cruz.
Cruz himself has purchased Facebook ads too, though the total amount that he has spent on them was not readily apparent from either the Facebook archive or the NYU data analysis. NYU Computer Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Damon McCoy explained in a press release accompanying his analysis that the Facebook archive is “difficult to use, requiring time-consuming manual searches.”
It was for this reason that McCoy applied various data scraping techniques to the acrhive to uncover the top spenders, who emerged as Trump and O’Rourke.
Manual searches of Facebook’s archive reveal that Cruz used political ads earlier this month to promote sales of campaign merchandise, and on Tuesday he began running an attack ad targeting Texan voters, which says, “Democrat O’Rourke stands against moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. He referred to it as an ‘incitement to violence’. Let’s show Beto that Texans stand behind Israel!…”
Cruz launched a second attack ad saying, “Hollywood Liberals are financially backing my opponent. They believe they can buy this election and make Texas like California. My opponent recently raised $10 MILLION! I am fighting to defend Texas and our values. I need your help. Please click the link below and send your urgent donation to defend our values in the Senate.”
Like O’Rourke, Cruz also used the platform to promote turnout to campaign events, including in Nacogdoches, Sulphur Springs, Jefferson, and College Station, and he used ads to draw attention to a one-on-one basketball game that he played against comedian Jimmy Kimmel in Houston.
Few ads of either candidate focused on substantive political issues, aside from the Cruz ad about Israel, and several O’Rourke ads that ran in mid-July focusing on the Senate confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whom O’Rourke called “a major threat to our rights and liberties.”
Nationwide, men aged 25–34 are the demographic group most targeted by political ads on Facebook. Women aged 18–24 were the next most targeted. NYU’s engineering school says it plans to do more analysis “to investigate geolocation and demographics information at finer-granularities to detect sponsors using Facebook’s targeted advertising functionality.”
The largest institutional spender from May to July, not counting Trump’s political action committee, was Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which spent $188,800.