The ad exchanges have given campaigns greater precision in targeting voters — 30-something women in swing states who visit parenting Web sites, for example. But the exchanges also take a cut of every buy, leaving less for politically oriented sites in what once was their most lucrative season. They say the trend threatens to starve a diffuse ecosystem of online publications that nurture political conversation.
“I can get 20 cents on the dollar anywhere. I don’t need Obama to get 20 cents on the dollar,” said Ed Connors, advertising director for Prospect.org and the American Prospect. “We’re not going to put the Obama ads on the site on the cheap. If they want access to our niche audience, they’re going to have to pay full freight.”
The Obama campaign declined to comment for this article.
Surging spending on online ads has spawned a new generation of campaign consultants, skilled in new targeting tools and less inclined to spend money on Web sites merely because they support a partisan message. They are increasingly mimicking the tactics of commercial advertisers, which often aim ads not at particular sites but at certain kinds of users and whatever they happen to reading at the time.
This is made possible by cookies — bits of code created by Web browsers — that show advertisers basic demographic information on users and track them from site to site. Zac Moffatt, digital director for Mitt Romney’s campaign, said most of its online ads are bought that way.
“We’re not buying a site. We’re buying an audience,” Moffatt said. “The power of the Internet is targeting.”
Moffatt and other political operatives see this shift as part of the growing sophistication of online political advertising, which in previous elections was mainly a tool for fundraising and now is used to persuade and mobilize voters.
Campaigns are still making some direct buys from politically oriented sites and other online publishers, as Obama did by taking over much of the Web site for the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday, when early voting began in Ohio. Obama also has bought ads on the Nation, the New Republic, Daily Kos and some smaller sites, said a campaign official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss media buys.