N.H. Voters Can Expect More Localized Facebook Ads With Democratic Debate Stage Set

Sep 4, 2019

Credit Fendall Fulton / NHPR

If you’re a Granite Stater who spends any time on Facebook, and you’ve expressed even the slightest interest in politics, chances are your feed is full of ads for the 2020 presidential candidates. 

We hit the campaign trail to learn more about what New Hampshire voters are seeing in their feeds and why.  

It’s a hot Tuesday evening in Wolfeboro, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has just finished speaking to a crowd of several hundred people. Rally goers are dispersing and checking their phones. This is the moment we came for. 

We walk up to groups of people and ask them if they have Facebook on their phones. Most people do. Then we ask them to pull it open, scroll through and narrate the ads they see. 

The first two people to oblige are sisters Anna and Jessica Simmons from Wolfeboro.

“There’s a lot of ads, random ads, Oh!”

Before she can finish her thoughts, Jessica jumps in with an ad she notices: “Warren for President, about abolishing the electoral college, which I actually, semi-agree with.” 

The petition based ad Jessica Simmons saw for Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Credit Alli Fam / NHPR

Then we meet Michael Bloomer, also from Wolfeboro. He’s tried to rid his feed of political ads, but as he scrolls through, it’s clear he hasn’t succeeded.

The first ad he sees is for Governor Steve Bullock. “This is join Steve Bullock in Rochester,” he explains. 

He keeps scrolling, past memes, photos of friends - and more ads. The next presidential ad he notices is for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. It’s followed by one for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, that he explains is “to sign up and grab a beer (with her).” 

Many New Hampshire voters can relate. Social media is key in the fight for voters’ attention this presidential primary. And Facebook is the most crowded battlefield of them all. There are ads for candidate rallies, ads promoting policy proposals, and ads begging for campaign contributions. 

And each type of ad has a specific goal, says Tara McAllen who works for a company that tracks digital trends and does digital strategy for Democratic candidates. Those small dollar donation ads you’ve probably been seeing all summer? She says they will fade, now that the September debate stage is set. 

And if you think your feed is clogged now, she says, just wait. 

“Most of the spending is very broad right now,” she says. “As we get closer to voting time, they’re going to start to spend a lot more heavily in the early states.” 

McAllen says we can also expect more ads in the coming months that address concerns and policies specific to New Hampshire voters, an approach some campaigns are already taking. 

Mayor Pete Buttigieg's New Hampshire ad for his Rural America Plan. According to the Facebook ad Library, the ad has been running since August 13th and has reached over 200,000 Granite Staters. It targets men and women equally with a focus on adults between the ages of 25 of 34.
Credit Alli Fam / NHPR

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is running an ad in the state right now that digs into his Rural America plan with graphics featuring New Hampshire-specific data on health care vacancies and rural hospitals.

Staffers on several New Hampshire campaigns told me that reaching rural voters with door-to-door canvassing and in-person events can be a challenge. And in a field this crowded, Facebook ads can help by blasting candidates messages to thousands of voters at once. 

Campaigns are willing to shell out large sums of money to ensure their ads are reaching the right people. The Buttigieg campaign, for example, is one of several this year to spend $100,000 on data from the state Democratic Party. 

Itemized receipt of the "Pete for America" purchase of New Hampshire voter information from the State Democratic Party.
Credit Alli Fam / NHPR

The party's voter list includes information like voters’ names, addresses, voting history, and donation history. Campaigns can take that information and cross referencing it with Facebook accounts to get the ads in front of the right people.

But even with careful targeting, it can be hard to stand out on Facebook, especially when voters like Michael Bloomer are already tired of all the ads.

As he stood scrolling through his profile at the Sanders rally, he signed: “Apparently we’re going to see every single Democratic candidate before I get out of here.” 

And if he spends enough time on Facebook, he probably will.