The political press has filled more than a few column inches with odes to how the Republican Party is targeting 2016 as the year they close the digital divide. While the Democratic digital advantage almost certainly remains, there remain questions, even within the party, about to what degree Republican presidential efforts have advanced.
Some, like Florida Republican Party Chair Blaise Ingoglia, believe that additional Republican investments in digital are already paving the way for 2016 victory. Others, like Republican digital strategist Vincent Harris, remain more skeptical. Harris sent a series of critical tweets in mid-August, arguing that the Republican campaigns were not doing enough digitally, especially in contrast to the digital efforts of the Democratic candidates.
It is difficult to evaluate the veracity of these claims so early in the cycle, but there is at least one piece of independent data that campaign finance nerds like myself are familiar with: the candidate’s second quarter FEC disbursement filings.
These filings do not – especially in a primary where outside money will play an outsized role – tell the entire story. Some campaigns are spending more on acquiring digitally savvy talent in-house and some are spending money with traditional media firms that may be putting some portion of their disbursement toward digital.
Even with those caveats in mind, a close reading of the Q2 reports can help us understand where the leading campaigns put their digital dollars in days and weeks after their presidential announcements.
Let’s take a look at the top 8 candidates in a recent polling aggregation:
Donald Trump (June 16)
Consistent with Trump’s lack of a traditional campaign apparatus, his campaign spent minimally online.
$10,200 went to Giles-Parscale, a Texas-based web development firm, who previous work includes the Eric Trump Foundation and Trump International Realty. Their political experience appears limited to a candidate for Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector and a candidate for a Bexar County judgeship.
$650 went to a digital design firm that has done extensive work with Trump properties while $2,464 went to Republican digital giant Targeted Victory for merchant fees for use of their Victory Passport online platform.
Jeb Bush (June 15)
Bush, who is said to be building a large in-house team, also spent relatively modestly between his June announcement and the end of the quarter.
The largest expense was $64,216 to Digital Core Campaign, an LLC that bills itself as a data and marketing firm and that was registered by Andy Barkett, the former CTO of the Republican National Committee. Yahoo previously reported that Barkett is working to create a voter file that can be shared across the Bush campaign and allied outside groups.
An additional $6,633 was spent across three firms on web design and consulting.
Ben Carson (May 4)
Carson’s FEC filings include the greatest diversity of vendors used – and almost none of them have traditional political experience.
$572,914 was spent with TMA Direct, a firm that does direct marketing cross-channel across email, mail, and telemarketing. Another $513,008 went to Eleventy Marketing Group, an Akron, Ohio-based web development and lead generation marketer, $16,824 to the K Street Post, and $33,149 to Coolhead, Inc. Eight other companies received payments of less than $4,500 for what is described as either web services or digital consulting.
These payments to a plethora of direct marketers undoubtedly contributed to Carson’s very aggressive 64% Q2 burn-rate.
Carson also has invested heavily in data, with $211,234 going to CDMI, a major Republican data management and compliance software used by a number of presidential candidates, $48,749 to Precision Data Management, and $100,000 to Cambridge Analytica, whose co-owner Robert Mercer is a major Ted Cruz donor.
Scott Walker (July 13)
Walker’s announcement came after the close of Q2.
Marco Rubio (April 13)
The Rubio campaign has only made one significant payment to a digital vendor – $654,439 to Campaign Solutions, on the final day of the quarter. The Becki Donatelli-founded full-service digital firm has also done Senate work for John McCain and Lindsey Graham and shows up on the presidential disclosures of Graham, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul.
Rubio paid $7,801 to Transaxt, an online fundraising platform used by others in the race, and various low-dollar amounts to more traditional software providers like Adobe and Docusign.
Ted Cruz (March 23)
Cruz’s popularity on social media has received mainstream coverage and his early investment would seem to imply a campaign serious about online investment. Cruz spent over a million dollars with Campaign Solutions, with $745,722 going toward list rentals and $434,059 toward the broad category of web services. Another $23,936 was spent on a list rental with Targeted Victory.
As reported in Politico, the Cruz campaign owes $556,000 to Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica for survey search and donor modeling.
A trio of firms with anonymous web presences – JPM Strategies of Fate, TX; Knocke Energy Holdings LCC of Driftwood, TX; and Political Social Media LLC of the K Street ZIP code 20035, received digital consulting payments of $16,110, $3,300, and $2,500 respectively.
On the software side, the Cruz campaign spent $20,000 on Zignal Labs, an increasingly popular social listening tool primarily used in the private sector. Cruz also appears to be laying the groundwork to utilize text message communications, with $18,901 spent with SMS vendor Tatango. GoDaddy was paid $1,988 for web hosting.
Carly Fiorina (May 4)
As a former tech executive, one might expect Fiorina to run a digital-first campaign. So far the numbers do not imply that’s been the case.
The Fiorina campaign has done the majority of its digital strategy through Tusk Digital, a firm that has done work for Nevada Republicans like Brian Sandoval and Dean Heller as well as Orrin Hatch. They were paid $125,650.
Rand Paul (April 7)
Paul has often attempted to associate himself with Silicon Valley innovation and his digital spending, while more modest than some of this competitors, does appear to be relatively sophisticated.
His largest overall expense was $243,775 of online advertising with Harris Media, LLC, the firm founded by the aforementioned Vincent Harris that has worked for Mitch McConnell and Rob Portman, among others. Also on the online advertising front, Paul’s FEC filing is the only of those considered here that shows a direct buy made with an online ad network, with $5,591 spent on Facebook advertising.
Another large sum, $98,255, was spent with Campaign Solutions. $76,790 of the $585,057 spent with Mike Rothfeld’s Saber Communications was on an expense that combined an email list rental and direct mail production. Rothfeld, a long-tenured member of Paul Inc., spent over $7 million on direct marketing for Ron Paul’s presidential bid.
Three data firms – Primary Data Solutions, Win Right Data LLC, and Aristotle International – received payments between $4,987 and $19,000.
One of the more major non-CDMI software purchases in these disclosures is the $40,776 Paul paid to Marketo Inc. for an emailing processing system. Paul’s campaign also spent $3,250 on Optimizely, a popular A/B testing tool used by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, but not present in the disclosure filing of any other top-tier Republican.
It’s still early and as noted from the start, FEC disclosures do not tell the entire story of how campaigns are distributing their resources. All the same, it is clear that major differences exist between how the leading Republican contenders are allocating their online resources.
While outsider candidates may be in with the Republican electorate, their inexperience shows on the digital front: Fiorina and Trump spent small sums there, while Carson spend big with vendors not traditionally known for their political acumen.
On the other hand, the trio of Senators who have been speculated candidates for years appear to be spending significant sums with established players in the Republican digital world. The degree to which those providers, and Bush’s in-house team, are able to guide these campaigns into a digitally-first world will ultimately determine how close Republicans can come to closing the digital divide in 2016.