MADISON, Wis. — Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin spent nearly $3 million on highly targeted digital ads focused on everything from dairy farmers to marijuana smokers during her successful re-election effort, an approach that her campaign manager said provides a road map to victory for future candidates.
Baldwin beat Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir by about 10 points in the Nov. 6 election, 10-times the narrow 1-point victory fellow Democrat Tony Evers notched over Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
How Baldwin was able to outperform Evers on her way to a second term was one of the most examined outcomes of the election. Baldwin campaign manager Scott Spector told The Associated Press that the digital ad campaign wasn't the difference maker in the race, but it helps to explain why Baldwin did better than Evers in many places and won counties that he did not.
The pathway for the Democratic presidential nominee to win Wisconsin in 2020 requires candidates to have a statewide strategy that includes doing better in western Wisconsin, the Fox Valley and Milwaukee while not ignoring voters in the rural northern part of the state, Spector said.
Spector said the Baldwin campaign showed how to do that — along with providing a road map for how to more effectively use digital ads to drive up turnout among key demographics.
"We didn't talk about any of this in the press," Spector said. "We just talked directly to the voters."
Campaigns typically leak commercials to reporters before they hit the air, hoping for free publicity about their spot that will reach even more people than the ad itself. While Baldwin and Vukmir's campaigns both did that, Spector said Baldwin was also secretly working on fine-tuning its digital ads in a way no other candidate has done before.
For example, Spector revealed that Baldwin worked with Google in January to test messages about how to respond to attacks about how she handled the over-prescription of opioids at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
When those attacks came, both from outside conservative groups and Vukmir, Baldwin was prepared with responses that focused on combating the problem of opioid over-prescription. Baldwin also talked about her mother's struggles with prescription drug addiction, and ran ads featuring the widow and parents of a veteran who died at Tomah.
Like most candidates, Baldwin's campaign spent most of its advertising money on television. It spent $13 million on TV compared with about $3 million on digital ads that appeared on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram and websites like Google and YouTube.
Vukmir spent only $2 million on TV ads. It's not clear how much she spent on digital.
In total, Baldwin's campaign raised about $31 million — roughly six times as much as Vukmir.
Vukmir's campaign manager and spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman said the GOP had staff dedicated to digital working on numerous races, including U.S. Senate.
"The goal for the Republican Party of Wisconsin has always been to reach voters where they are; fielding a robust digital engagement strategy is a key component to accomplishing that goal," he said in a statement.
Baldwin's digital ads got 40 million impressions, Spector said. On social media platforms there were 15 million impressions, he said.
Those ads were either 15-second versions of 30-second TV spots, or separate pieces made exclusively for digital platforms, Spector said. Some touted Baldwin's work with the dairy industry and were targeted to dairy farmers, ads that Spector said led to Baldwin winning Trempealeau and Jackson counties while Evers lost there.
Other digital ads, aimed at voters who were likely to support legalizing marijuana, attacked Vukmir over her opposition to that. They also had ads targeting African-American voters in Milwaukee, which Spector said helped bolster turnout there.
As part of Baldwin's get-out-the-vote effort the campaign ran a digital ad that got 8 million impressions hitting Vukmir over her allegiance to Trump.