COLUMBUS, Ohio — Much of the work of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s re-election campaign in Ohio is happening under the fingertips of voters. Google says Portman has made some of the savviest use this election cycle of its digital resources as his campaign has begun to unravel an early lead by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.
Through his well-funded campaign, Portman is effectively using data mining, YouTube ads and search promotion in his race against Strickland, a Democrat, said Lee Dunn, head of the tech giant’s elections-industry operation in Washington, D.C.
Most political campaigns use Google. In fact, Strickland’s Senate campaign also has employed the company’s search lifts and data mining tools and even helped test non-skippable, six-second “bumper ads” on YouTube last spring.
But Dunn said the Republican’s prolonged and varied use of Google’s tools, while typical among corporate clients, is rare in politics.
“I would say Fortune 500 companies always seem to be a little bit farther ahead than politicians, as you can imagine,” she said. “Candidates are relearning these tools every four or five years, and Fortune 500 companies are learning every day how to utilize the latest available technology.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has also notably used Google tools for a Spanish-language campaign, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign made extensive use of Google to turn out voters and to issue blasts to his supporters’ mobile devices.
David Niven, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said Portman has had the advantage of deep campaign reserves accumulated as Republicans seek to hold onto what was viewed initially as one of the country’s most vulnerable Senate seats.
“He jumped on digital even six years ago, because he knew he would have the resources for a full-throated campaign, and it’s increasingly hard to find the voters watching TV when you’d like them to be,” Niven said. “Both sides looked at Ohio as a proving ground and perhaps the Republicans somewhat more desperately, thinking if they can’t save Ohio they can’t possibly hold the Senate.”
Niven said TV viewers, especially those in Ohio who see an onslaught of television ads each election year, have become savvy at tuning out TV spots by leaving the room, muting the volume or surfing their phones during commercials.
Internet techniques are more difficult to avoid.
Portman’s campaign, for instance, has created different audiences around the state, delivering each a different online message. Search tools from Google elevate Portman’s website, and sites negative toward Strickland, in web searches — and data mining allows ineffective ad message to be quickly pulled and replaced.
“We met with Google’s analysts and political team in January 2015 and committed to run a data-driven, tech-savvy campaign that would involve Google analysts in everything we do,” said Portman campaign manager Corry Bliss. “Working with the Google team has allowed us to run and target multiple messages at any given time across Ohio and contrast Rob’s accomplishments for Ohio families with Ted Strickland’s failures as governor.”
The Strickland campaign said it also is heavily using the most innovative digital advertising strategies.
“We use digital micro targeting in conjunction with our data and analytics to ensure we’re reaching the right voters with the most persuasive argument, and we’re communicating with voters who may not be watching television by placing content on websites like Pandora,” spokesman David Bergstein said. “If Senator Portman thinks Google can help him win, he obviously hasn’t Googled his own record.”