Facebook’s post-election ban on political ads has forced the candidates and groups competing in Georgia’s Senate runoffs to rethink a big chunk of their campaign playbooks.
Facebook and Google — which have made more than $3 billion on political ads in the last two and a half years — banned them after Election Day in an effort to limit the spread of misinformation about the results. But neither company gave an end date, and in a Wednesday email to clients Facebook confirmed that it would be extending its ban at least through mid-December. Google has not indicated when it will be lifting its ban.
In Georgia, GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and their Democratic opponents, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, have effectively lost one of the main pipelines for talking to voters that they’ve been using for months. It’s possible ads will be back before their Jan. 5 runoffs, which will decide control of the Senate. But Facebook’s ban already bumps up against other key dates, like the voter registration deadline on Dec. 7, the beginning of early voting on Dec. 14, and the period to request absentee ballots, which is happening right now.
The ban is forcing campaigns in both parties to rethink their mobilization and fundraising strategies. For Democrats, it’s raising the pressure to returning to in-person canvassing, a strategy the party largely abandoned during the 2020 general election due to safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.
“While there are limitations in the digital space, you still have to find ways to get information to communities that are marginalized and isolated,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a Georgia-based group that mobilizes Black voters across the South. She said that “some door-knocking was going on during the general, but not to the same extent as we’ve seen in the past, so that we could be safe.”
“It’s going to be really important for the Democratic Party and for campaigns to have a ground war strategy, focused on relational organizing,” Brown added.
Both parties are publicly pressing Facebook to reverse course. Scott Fairchild, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called for an exemption for the Georgia Senate races in a Wednesday statement, casting Facebook’s move as “actively harmful to organizations working to inform Georgia’s diverse voters about the January runoffs.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told POLITICO that the ad ban “is effectively amounting to voter and donor suppression,” pointing out that Democrats are more reliant on small-dollar donors reached via Facebook.
“Every time they put their foot on the political scales like this, with no warning and without any ability for campaigns to react and readjust, it reminds me why we need to rethink the size and power of Facebook moving forward,” Murphy said.
Michael Duncan, a Republican strategist working with the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s independent advertising arm, said that as recently as Wednesday morning, he asked Facebook representatives to make an exemption for the Georgia runoff. Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the NRSC, also called the ad ban a First Amendment issue, adding that the “lack of transparency on when ads will resume and the timing of it could not be worse.”
"They’re taking a critical tool out of the hands of campaigns,” Duncan said.
Facebook’s Director of Project Management Rob Leathern tweeted Wednesday afternoon that the “ad pause and other temporary election protection measures” would remain as the presidential election result “moves toward certification next month.” He wrote that Facebook isn’t able to exempt the Georgia Senate races from the ban.
But consultants in both parties noted that Facebook currently doesn’t accept political ads related to state or local initiatives in Washington state, after the state’s attorney general sued the company for failing to follow its disclosure laws in 2019.
“It’s not that they can’t [make an exemption]. It’s that they don’t want to,” said Annie Levene, a Democratic digital consultant. “Limiting ads to a specific state is literally an option within existing ad targeting.”
In Georgia, strategists said that the campaigns and committees need to fill in the gaps left by the digital bans with other forms of communication — including, multiple Democrats said, by returning to door-knocking in force, if it can be done using appropriate safety precautions.
“Every part of voter outreach: texting, phone banking, and if it can be done safely, door-knocking … will need to step up and fill in the holes left behind without these platforms available to us,” said one Democrat involved in the runoffs.
“In many ways, there is no replacement for Google and Facebook, but we’re going to have to consider going back to door-to-door canvassing,” said another Democrat involved in the Georgia runoffs, granted anonymity to speak about strategy candidly.
In a memo released on Monday, the DSCC already signaled that its multi-million-dollar program in Georgia “will include on-the-ground organizers, direct mail, phones and text messaging.”
Republicans, too, said they expected “other means of voter contact will become more important, like canvassing, texting and phone banking,” said one Republican familiar with Georgia runoff strategy.
A second Republican working on the Georgia races pointed to Loeffler’s event with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Wednesday in Marietta, Ga., explaining that without the ban, Republicans would have promoted the event on Facebook to users in the area, “driving turnout” to it “and capturing those Republicans’ data along the way.”
But Democrats, in particular, built much of their fundraising prowess on the strength of small-dollar donors, an ecosystem that’s often developed through Facebook ads.
The extension of the ad ban comes after Facebook botched the rollout of its pre-election blackout of new political ads. Hundreds of pre-approved ads from both parties, including for the two presidential campaigns, were incorrectly kicked off the platform because of a “technical glitch.”
Since then, the company’s evasiveness about when the ban will end has stoked fears among consultants that Facebook and Google may choose to exit from the political ad game altogether, all in an effort to avoid the public relations headache.
Officials from Facebook and Google previously told POLITICO that the bans were temporary.
For now, Democrats also argue that the ban “disproportionately hurts” Ossoff and Warnock over the two Republican candidates, Fairchild wrote in the DSCC memo.
They point to Loeffler and Perdue’s ability to self-fund or rely more heavily on high-dollar donors to fund their bids. Ossoff and Warnock raised a combined $55 million during the 2020 election cycle, much of it from small-dollar donors. In fact, Ossoff burst into the national spotlight by raising millions for a special election for Congress in 2017, largely from small-dollar donors, and briefly holding the title of the most expensive House race in history.
“We don’t have billionaires riding to the rescue in Georgia, so we have to base this on $10, $20 contributions and Facebook is one of the predominate ways we raise small-dollar contributions,” said Murphy, who, along with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), raised nearly $4 million for Democratic Senate candidates in 2020 by tapping into their Twitter followings. “Facebook pulled the rug out from under the Georgia Senate candidates right at the moment when their campaign cupboards are dry.”
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