"There are a lot of crocodile tears about the corruption of money in politics, but the vast majority goes for advertising," Republican consultant Stuart Stevens told U.S. News and World Report in an interview this week. "Talk about military-industrial complex: the media-political complex is vastly profitable. Where does most of the super PAC money go? Goes to the media."
The framing there (and the war analogy) is subject to debate. But it's true that most of the money spent by campaigns is spent on advertising, and most of that is spent with television stations.
For observers of the political process, the natural response is largely that the system is a bloated beast, devouring money in the service of incremental fights and nasty campaigning. For media companies that aren't television stations, though, the response is different: How do we get a slice of that pie?
Candidates have long relied on political consultants to guide them from announcement to Election Day. Consultants run campaigns year after year, finding work even when their candidates are not up for reelection, so they have an expertise (and connections) that candidates don't. A lot of consultants operate the production side of things, too -- meaning that campaigns would pay consultants to come up with ideas for mail pieces and then pay the consultants to make and mail those mail pieces. Larger campaigns have TV consultants and print consultants and so on, and they all fight to make the case that TV is more important or print is so that they can get more in consulting fees. It's not cute.
Then came digital media, and a new breed of consultants were vying for money and attention. Old print dudes and TV guys didn't want to have to slice up the pie further, so digital media adoption was slow. But the digital media guys had powerful allies: Google and Facebook and other big companies, who were willing to start throwing resources at convincing candidates that digital made sense. Then Barack Obama won in 2008, running a digital-heavy campaign (in part because he had a truly ridiculous amount of money, meaning more pie). Candidates had a new reason to consider digital.
But there are still tech companies -- companies that are used to venture capitalists throwing money at them -- that aren't big parts of the consulting space. Companies like Snapchat.
Snapchat, as we've noted before, has two advantages that it can leverage in trying to lure candidates. One is that it has a (hard to verify) massive number of views of its videos. The other is that most of its users are young.
For a campaign that wants to entice younger voters, that's precisely the combination you'd want. But the question arises in that second word: voters. How can candidates know that the people looking at their snaps (as the images and videos on the service are called) are even voters worth targeting? What if a campaign is paying thousands of dollars to run an ad on Snapchat -- an ad that can't include links back to campaign Web sites, mind you -- and no actual voters are looking at it?
Well, Snapchat now has an answer. It commissioned a poll conducted by two polling firms that looked at how engaged Snapchat users are. And guess what? They are very engaged and vote a lot, and you should go advertise with Snapchat! Or so they'd want me to write, and so they convinced another outlet to write.
But, yeah, no. "Two-thirds (67% ) of Snapchat’s millennial users are likely to vote in the 2016 election, compared with 61% of millennials overall," the poll found, defining "millennials" as those aged 18 to 34. That's self-identified "likely to vote," a number that is obviously higher than what will be the end result. Only 41 percent of people aged 18-24 voted in 2012, and those aged 25 to 44 -- a group that includes a lot more older (read: regular) voters than Snapchat's pool -- voted at 57 percent turnout. Maybe the millennials that talked to Snapchat's pollsters were unusually likely to vote! Or maybe not.
That's the key stat, and it's iffy. The poll includes other data, such as that 63 percent of the millennial Snapchat users -- a group of undeclared size -- are "following the election closely." That number is at least twice the percentage of people who told Pew Research they were paying very close attention to the race in September. Snapchat's poll also suggests that "43% [of millennial Snapchat users] viewed the CNN Republican Primary Debate on September 16th." Two-thirds of the 23 million people who watched that debate were either under 25 or over 54, according to Nielsen, leaving not a lot of room for overlap with Snapchat's demo.
It's also important to note that this is a poll paid for by Snapchat and for which detailed information isn't available. Maybe respondents were asked "Are you likely to vote next year or are you a bad person?," which might skew things. It's hard to know what to take away from the poll, beyond that skepticism is warranted.
The thing about Snapchat is that it is a black box even by the standards of media distribution systems. Even the partners on their most popular tool, Discover, only get limited data about who sees their content. Maybe Snapchat is a great way to go for a campaign! Obama 2008 veteran Jim Messina said it was, and that was the campaign that turned around thinking on digital. Of course the last campaign Messina ran was David Cameron's in Britain, and Cameron, far from embracing Snapchat, was reported to want to ban the application out of security concerns.
We're at a meta-level of advertising here. Snapchat pushing out numbers (the in-vogue currency for turning heads in politics) to advertise its advertising, in the hopes that campaigns will point that fire hose of cash in their direction. Go nuts, campaigns. We'd just recommend you give those numbers a second look.
Anyway, three campaigns already advertised on Snapchat. John Kasich did, and he's now in sixth place. Rand Paul was an early adopter; he's in eighth. And then there's the third candidate, who it almost seems rude to mention. So we'll just drop this link, and leave it there.