IX Perspectives

Programmatic Pre-Iowa

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Media coverage of the upcoming presidential election in the United States continues to swell and as the primary season unfolds the programmatic strategies of the candidates and political parties slowly appear.

To determine how digital RTB factored into battle preparations for the Iowa primary, we examined marketplace activity and spend by candidate and party from New Year’s Day, January 1, 2016, to the day after the Iowa primary, February 2, 2016.

Each Campaign Takes a Different Approach to Programmatic

Online ad spend from the 2008 presidential election to 2012 grew tremendously – the Federal Election Commission says it increased 251% from 2008 to 2012. This makes sense – the candidates in 2012 approached a relatively matured online ad market and bullishly embraced new tactics for pinpointing and reaching the voters of America.

Four years later and the online ad market has continued to grow thanks in part to the ongoing evolution of programmatic. Buyers have more control over where their ads end up and how they render, and publishers have more intelligence on their audiences. Programmatic is a tool that is best used today to meet specific objectives (i.e. reaching niche audiences online, raising brand or candidate awareness) and as it’s matured, its utility to a select few of the 2016 presidential candidates is becoming obvious.

In order to monitor how the candidates have spent in the early primary season, we took a look at Index Exchange United States data from January 1 to the Iowa primary on February 1. We found the following:

  • Five campaigns had loudest programmatic voice. Five campaigns broke the top twenty overall political spenders during the time period. In descending order of total spend volume they were: Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Jeb Bush.
  • Campaign budget ranged wildly. The Bernie Sanders campaign spent the most during this time period by a significant margin – Sanders’ spend was 46x higher than Hillary Clinton’s. The biggest Republican buyer was Ben Carson, followed by Ted Cruz.
  • Conservative PACs dominate. Four political action committees were ranked among the top ten political spenders: Conservative SolutionsKeep the Promise IIIPro-Cruz Super PAC, and Right to Rise. Keep the Promise III and Pro-Cruz Super PAC are PACs focused solely on the Cruz campaign. Conservative Solutions is a PAC focused on the Rubio campaign and Right to Rise backs Jeb Bush.
  • Republicans spent more overall, due to Clinton campaign’s small programmatic voice. Overall, republican spend was 133% higher than Democratic spend during the lead up to the Iowa primary. This is to be expected, considering there are more Republican campaigns in flight. However, the Sanders campaign spent significantly more than each of the different Republican campaigns during this time period.

Key Days

A number of days during this period were pinpointed as majorly important. As you’ll see, Republican spend follows a pattern normalized to specific election milestones. This is for a few reasons – first, there was more Republican spend during this time period overall and second, multiple Republican candidates are spending significantly on programmatic. When you read the Democratic key days, keep in mind the Sanders campaign is outspending the Clinton campaign programmatically by a sizable margin.

Most Spend (by days)

Democratic Spend

  1. Saturday, 1/23
  2. Tuesday, 1/19
  3. Wednesday, 1/20

Republican Spend

  1. Wednesday, 1/27 – the day before the Republican debate
  2. Sunday, 1/31 – the day before the Iowa Primary
  3. Saturday, 1/30 – two days before the Iowa Primary


  1. Wednesday, 1/27 – the day before the Republican debate
  2. Saturday, 1/23 – the day of the East Coast Blizzard
  3. Sunday, 1/31 – the day before the Iowa primary

Highest Average Bid Price (by days)


  1. Monday 1/18 – the day after the Democratic debate
  2. Thursday 1/7
  3. Wednesday 1/20


  1. Thursday 1/21
  2. Tuesday 2/2 – the day after the primary
  3. Saturday 1/16  — two days after 1/14 debate

The Results

According to HuffPo coverage, Ted Cruz won the Republican caucus with 27.6% of the vote. Trump came in second with 24% of the votes and Rubio was third with 23%. Clinton won the Democratic caucus with 49.9% of the votes, while Sanders came close at 49.6%.

The Iowa results were not completely misaligned with programmatic campaign spend during the month of January. Specifically:

  • Cruz, the Republican Victor, spent most of the Republican candidates. The Cruz Campaign accounted for 38% of total Republican presidential campaign spend from January 1 to February 1. The Republican campaign that spent the second-highest was Rubio, at 31% of total spend.
  • Trump and Clinton are relying on reputation. We didn’t see anything from the Trump campaign within Index Exchange during the lead up to the Iowa primary. Though other candidates are using programmatic to help build awareness for their campaigns, Trump seemingly doesn’t seem to need that channel. Trump awareness throughout the country is high and perhaps, for now, he is focused on using far-reaching broadcast channels to deliver his message. Clinton, similarly, spent very little within Index Exchange during the time period, despite commanding a slight majority of the Democratic votes.
  • Programmatic is becoming Sanders’ darling. Sanders is spending significantly more than other candidates via programmatic channels. He spent twice as much as Cruz and 46x as much as Clinton. It will be interesting to learn more about the Sanders campaign as the ramp to November continues.

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