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A look at online ads in the 2012 election

by Becca Heller

President Obama via a computer screenWhile much has been made of President Obama's digital savvy and online dominance in his campaign against Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign -- in which spending on web advertising soared by 251 percent over 2008, a Sunlight analysis suggests that outside Republican spenders were making a concerted effort to compensate for Mitt Romney's relative lack of web presence.

A look at online ad spending by outside spending groups we've been following all year shows that, like the presidential campaigns, they were using digital communications heavily. Super PACs, trade associations and other nonprofit groups that made campaign expenditures spent roughly $46.1 million on web ads. Though the Obama campaign considerably outspent Romney's campaign on web advertising, outside Republican outside spenders ponied up nearly five times more on online advertising than liberal outside groups, according to independent expenditure filings with the FEC.

It's no surprise then, that the groups topping the charts of online expenditures are nearly all conservative outside groups: 

  • American Crossroads came in first, spending almost $7 million on online ads alone. The super PAC's nonprofit sister group, Crossroads GPS, also topped the charts with another $2.3 million in online ad spending. The former focused its online advertising on the presidential campaign, mostly targetting Obama with negative advertising, while the latter took its aim at Democrats in the tighter congressional races.
  • American Future Fund, another heavy hitting conservative group, was the second biggest online spender with almost $5.5 million going towards web ads. The majority of these funds were directed towards the presidential election, and the group funded both positive ads for Romney and negative ones for Obama.
  • The NRA also spent quite a bit online. Channeling money through two separate groups -- the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action (which spent about $3.3 million) and the National Rifle Association of America Political Victory Fund (which spent about $1.3 million) -- the association spent nearly $5 million on web ads attacking Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. and Senate candidates Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and Jeff Flake, a Virginia Republican, to name a few of the NRA's targets. Despite the NRA's opposition, all three won their races. 

Liberal outside spenders lagged far behind top Republican spenders. Planned Parenthood Action Fund Inc came closest, spending a little over $500,000 on web ads, while Majority PAC, another Democratic  group, spent about $430,000. 

With online outreach booming, eyes have been on the FEC as it struggles to regulate a largely unregulated market. In most cases, the commisson has opted to treat online ads similarly to those on television, requiring the ads to include disclaimers stating who paid for the advertisement. Facebook and Google each presented a plea to the FEC to loosen disclosure laws , in strategic bids to draw in political ad buyers. Both requests to waive the required ad disclaimers (which state the name of the group funding the ad) were rejected; However the FEC did loosen restrictions in response to Google's case, announcing that a url to the paying committee's website could substitute for explicit disclosure.

Among the organizations that have most benefited from the expansion of online election advertising, Targeted Victory, an online consulting firm that was also a top consultant for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, topped the charts with more than $9 million in revenue from super PACs seeking to expand their online outreach. American Crossroads was this organization's biggest client.  Google followed Targeted Victory closely, bringing in about $6.3 million -- and considerably beating out Facebook, which, with about $1.6 million in online revenue, came in seventh among organizations receiving online ad revenue.  

Other groups that brought in revenue from election advertising include OnMessage Inc., which saw $4.6 million in online revenue, and Angler LLC which brought in about $4.5 million. Both groups relied on big conservative spenders the NRA (for OnMessage) and American Future Fund (Angler's primary client). 

While the conservative outside groups clearly beat out liberal groups in online spending, there's a good chance that Republican outside spenders were aiming to match the Obama campaign's online efforts -- a task which the Romney campaign was unable to achieve on its own. 

(Photo credit: The White House via Flickr)