Programmatic Politics in 2016

Angie Possemato, Digital Marketing Academist

The 2016 presidential primary and general elections are fast approaching, and from now until election day, voters should expect to be targeted by political ads based on their online behavior. Although the exact definition varies, programmatic buying can be loosely defined as online advertising that is aggregated, booked, flighted, analyzed and optimized via demand side software interfaces and algorithms. Basically, using data and predictive analytics to place ads to one anonymous user, and in some cases, allowing for the technology to cater to the campaigns KPIs via the optimization of algorithmic processes. Check out the lifespan of a programmatic buy to get a little more familiar with this process if you’d like to see a step-by-step of the buying process. As programmatic buys become increasingly more widespread in consumer and business industries, it makes sense that politicians would adopt the targeting strategy to use to their advantage—especially considering the competitive climate and ample number of candidates in the running this season.

Political ad spend increases year-over-year, and digital is making a name for itself as a worthy place to spend campaign dollars. Borrell reports that in 2012 $159.2 million was spent in online political message advertising, and predicts that this figure will reach $995.3 million. That’s an increase of 525% in digital spending over the span of four years.

After Obama’s successful galvanization of social media resources in 2012, campaign managers have come to understand the power that the digital space plays in an election. With the implementation of programmatic placements with pixel tracking, voters will find that their past searches and online profile determines which tailored message they will be served. Political predicting works a little something like this:

Reuters explained digital political targeting as such:

  1. Partisan data firms on both the left and the right compile detailed voter databases and organize them based on geographical and demographic information on 190 million registered voters.

  2. Next, digital targeting firms like DSPolitical, CampaignGrid, and Targeted Victory, map the voter data sets against commercially available data like Internet histories and real estate and tax records.

  3. Piecing the bits of data together, candidates can place specific online ads to registered voters in the San Francisco area based on recent Google searches (ex. Environmentalists that have googled “Toyota Prius” can be targeted as such).


A combination of predictive targeting and programmatic retargeting work together in awareness campaigns and allow for candidates to stand out in a very crowded race.


Primary elections pose as a testing platform for programmatic buys before the approach of the general election. David Seawright, director of analytics and product innovation at the media and analytics firm Deep Root says, "because we have a competitive primary with multiple candidates, there are going to be a lot of scenarios with actual voters voting where we can test what works or doesn't work, that will hopefully give us a leg up going into the general election."


The timeliness and ability to optimize that programmatic allows will create an advantage for the candidates that choose to implement it in their media plans. Twitter’s head of political sales Jenna Golden explained to Forbes in 2012, “Candidates really do have the opportunity to immediately serve a piece of content into a user’s timeline at the exact right moment to persuade or give that user a reason to learn something new,”


That sentiment rings true now more than ever, and as politics borrows from consumer and business marketing, there is presumably something to be learned from the use of programmatic in politics. Until then, we’ll wait in anticipation and watch as the candidates duke it out in the digital space.