SENATE RACE DATA: Graham, Harrison races spend millions on Facebook ads

Records show more social media ads in S.C. Senate race

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - It’s well-documented how millions of dollars head to advertising efforts during an election cycle.

For decades, political campaigns turned to media like television, radio, and print. But in 2020, digital advertising is being utilized like never before.

WMBF Investigates looked into political advertising on social media, particularly Facebook.

Laura Edelson, a computer scientist and PhD candidate at NYU’s Tanden School of Engineering, explained the social media platform began to publish a public transparency archive after concerns around election interference during the 2016 election.

Edelson is one of the team members behind the college’s Online Political Transparency Project. The project created an Ad Observatory where they study digital political ads, and streamline and track election-based Facebook ads for the public’s consumption.

Based on their data crunching from the social media platform, it becomes clear just how much the U.S. Senate race for South Carolina’s seat has utilized this new way to get their campaign’s message out.

The vast majority of that is ads soliciting donations. So it’s very expensive to run a Senate campaign; it’s even more expensive to go up against an incumbent,” Edelson said.

This may be why Jaime Harrison’s campaign has taken so much to Facebook, spending $4.6 million on political ads for the platform, according to Ad Observatory. Incumbent Lindsey Graham, in contrast, has spent $2.5 million. These numbers encompass spending since July 1, 2020.

“I think in particular, we see Congressional campaigns and local campaigns doing more and more on those social media platforms,” said Dr. Holley Tankersley, a political science professor for Coastal Carolina University. “They really didn’t utilize them as much early on as presidential candidates, but now we see a lot more state and local level races really hitting hard those social media platforms to try to get that message out there.”

When looking at spending done by South Carolinian campaigners on the federal level as a whole, the breadth of emphasis on Facebook is wide.

“It’s interesting that, right now, during this period of the campaign, what’s really happening on Facebook is people are raising money,” Edelson said. “And it’s just interesting that some candidates are really playing hard to this strategy, and others sort of aren’t even playing that game.”

It’s important to note that Facebook ad spending by South Carolinian candidates is not just being marketed to those who live within the Palmetto State.

“The Harrison strategy in particular - there’s an old saying in politics: ‘All politics is local,’" Tankersley explained. "So let’s just flip that on its head. All politics these days is national.”

When breaking down the spending from overall totals to state-specific, NYU Ad Observatory shows that only $1.3 million is heading to South Carolina ads from Harrison’s campaign.

That leaves the remaining estimated $3.3 million for other parts of the country.

Graham’s priorities seem to be similar. The NYU Ad Observatory documented that almost $104,000 are for ads in South Carolina, which is a small number in comparison to the $2.5 million they say he’s spent in total on Facebook.

“Part of it goes to this larger question about in general flipping the Senate - flipping control of the Senate from Republican to Democratic, and thinking about enticing national donors to support Harrison’s campaign with that larger goal in mind," Tankersley explained.

As we approach the final stretch in this election season, Edelson is predicting that Facebook ads will shift away from donation-seeking to encouraging people to go vote.

The U.S. Senate race for South Carolina’s seat is a close one. At last check, the Federal Election Commission reported that Graham’s race had acquired over $29 million in campaign contributions, while Harrison’s campaign had recorded nearly $29 million in contributions to his campaign.

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