Facebook and Google’s on-again, off-again bans on political ads are hitting campaigns during a crucial fundraising window, cutting off a key pipeline to potential supporters and disrupting early planning for the next round of elections, from state and local races this year to looming midterm elections in 2022.
The self-imposed bans — put in place, lifted and then reimposed in some form by both companies since the week before Election Day 2020 — have essentially pressed pause on a political industry that spent $3.2 billion advertising on Google and Facebook in the last two and a half years. Some digital political firms are freezing hiring due to the uncertainty surrounding their biggest ad platforms. And the bans have interfered with organizing and early fundraising efforts piggybacking off a new administration and the start of a new election cycle.
Political campaigns have been moving more and more online every year, culminating with the leap into pandemic-era remote campaigning in 2020. Now, the main tools for digital advertising are still on ice for the political world, months after the first disruptions were put in place.
“This is an industry that built itself around Facebook and Google, and that rug has been pulled out from underneath them,” said Tim Cameron, a Republican digital strategist. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see layoffs on the digital side of the industry, as well as shifting to doing different types of work, like digital firms adding more mail or other traditional media to what they do.”
The lingering pause on ads comes at a particularly painful moment for campaigns and party committees. Normally, they would be tapping into the rage or joy of small-dollar donors, activated in both parties by the new Biden administration, the second impeachment proceedings against former President Donald Trump, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Republican votes against certifying the Electoral College results.
“Right now, if you’re a campaign, you’re really, really worried about how you’re going to raise money online at the same rate you were able to do it when you had access to Facebook ads,” said Tatenda Musapatike, senior adviser at ACRONYM, a progressive digital group. “If you have a digital business, [you are] recalibrating your business model, trying to figure out how to get that same rate of engagement in other ways.”
Candidates gearing up for 2021 elections, like the contenders for governor or state legislature in Virginia and New Jersey, are hardest hit by the ad bans right now. Many are just kicking off their organizing and fundraising in earnest. First-time candidates are feeling the pain most acutely, especially those facing entrenched or better-known opponents.
“When a candidate is running for the first time, they’re starting grassroots fundraising from scratch, they’re recruiting volunteers from scratch, they’re building their name ID from scratch,” said Caitlin Mitchell, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior digital adviser to both Biden and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaigns. “If there were more options that were as powerful as Facebook, it’d be less worrisome, but Facebook is often the number one way to reach those audiences.”
It’s still early, but prospective 2024 presidential candidates may also feel the pinch. By 2017, Democratic presidential hopefuls were already laying the groundwork to build massive donor lists. Ryan Alexander, another Democratic digital consultant, said that if the ban extends into the presidential primary, it will put a “premium on national figures who already have huge followings,” potentially incentivizing candidates to say inflammatory things to build an online presence without the help of paid advertising.
“Two of the most important things to a campaign [are] time and money, and you can’t get either back. Every day that goes by that Facebook doesn’t allow us to run ads is another day that passes where a supporter doesn’t have an opportunity to make a contribution or sign up for a list,” said a GOP digital consultant, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “The uncertainty is the most frustrating part.”
Facebook and Google instituted rolling blackouts for ads before and after Election Day 2020 as part of a broader effort to cut down on misinformation around elections. Now, the decision about when — and whether — to allow political ads back on the platforms is playing out against a larger backdrop of politics clashing with technology companies.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all suspended former President Donald Trump from their platforms earlier this month, as Republicans decried the moves as limiting free speech. Social media companies are also coming under increasing pressure to police misinformation, particularly in light of the violent riot and siege of the Capitol building on Jan. 6.
Google initially ended its five-week long ban in December, but the company reimposed it after Jan. 6, saying that it would hold through at least Jan. 21, the day after Inauguration Day. Google flagged the Capitol Hill riot under its “sensitive event” policy, a designation usually reserved for natural disasters, which resulted in the return of the ad ban.
Ads are still paused under that designation a week after President Joe Biden’s swearing-in. A spokesperson for Google declined to comment further. At least one senior Democratic digital operative said they expect Google to lift its ban on Wednesday, marking one week after Inauguration Day.
Facebook, meanwhile, prohibited all political ads after Election Day without giving political clients a clear end date, though the company has regularly said since October that it is a “temporary pause.” Facebook did exempt political ads related to the Georgia Senate runoffs ahead of those Jan. 5 elections, but it clamped down again with a broader ban the next day.
“They’re breadcrumbing us,” said Annie Levene, a Democratic digital strategist, citing a dating phenomenon in which a person leads someone on through text and digital communications without any actual plans to become romantically involved. “Giving us a little bit, then disappearing, then coming back, and then disappearing again.”
A Facebook spokesperson told POLITICO the company is working with campaigns and nonprofits to help them better understand what their ad policy currently rejects and accepts. They also noted that political clients can post organic content during the ad pause. But Musapatike noted that “organic content is the problem,” not ads, “when it comes to safety on the platform.”
Digital strategists in both parties are unsure some online platforms will return to allowing political ads at all. Last year, several other technology platforms removed political ads, including Twitter, Spotify and Adobe. But Google and Facebook have, so far, resisted going down that same path.
If political ads on Facebook and Google do come back, those strategists said, it’s not clear yet what new restrictions the companies might introduce. Some speculated that the platforms could attempt to limit the number of different types of creative content a group or campaign could run at one time, cutting the thousands of iterations down to just a few, which would make monitoring ads more manageable. Others suggested that the companies may try to further control or curb how campaigns can target voters.
As digital practitioners wait for answers, they’re already turning to other methods and outlets to stir up fundraising and roll out campaign messaging. Platforms like Hulu, Pandora, Verizon, AT&T and other video streaming services are early stops, several strategists said. But list rentals and exchanges for freshening email programs is also likely to surge again, methods commonly used in the early days of online fundraising.
“Facebook tried to make itself irreplaceable to us, but it’s forced us to replace it now, so that’s what we have to do moving forward,” Levene said.