Michigan Supreme Court Campaign Credits Facebook Ads With Margin of Victory

Can Social-Media Ads Win An Election?

By Published on .

What tipped the scales in favor of a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court in a closely run election? Her campaign team surmises that a heavy helping of Facebook ads during the home stretch of the race played an outsize role.

Democrat Bridget Mary McCormack was ultimately the top vote-getter in a field of seven candidates running for two full-term seats on the bench. Her roughly 1.53 million votes edged out the other winner, Republican incumbent Stephen Markman, by more than 30,000 votes. (The first and second runners-up had roughly 1.4 million votes apiece.)

Bridget Mary McCormack
Bridget Mary McCormack

Ms. McCormack's campaign manager, Jon Hoadley, finds her margin of victory all the more surprising because of the onslaught on negative TV ads paid for by a Washington, D.C.-based group called the Judicial Crisis Network that were aimed at Ms. McCormack, a University of Michigan law professor, during the final week of the campaign. (The ad featured the mother of a deceased American soldier and homed in on Ms. McCormack's offer to represent Guantanamo detainees.)

While the Judicial Crisis Network was filling the airwaves in Detroit and Grand Rapids with $1 million worth of attack ads, Ms. McCormack's team was spending liberally on Facebook. Mr. Hoadley estimates that 51% of the campaign's $100,000 ad budget was allocated to Facebook, and 80% of that sum was spent in the final five days with the intent of burning the candidate's name into liberal voters' brains. (Ms. McCormack also benefited from TV ads run by the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee to support its slate, made up of her and two other candidates.)

"Repetition over a short period of time really did make a difference," said Mr. Hoadley.

Doubling down on Facebook for the final stretch was more of an accident than a strategy, according to Josh Koster, managing partner of the digital agency Chong & Koster, which handled the buy for Ms. McCormack's campaign. Due to time constraints, it wasn't feasible to execute a diversified strategy that included display and search ads, he said.

Instead, the campaign ultimately had a half-dozen Facebook ads in circulation in the five days leading up to Nov. 6 after a brief testing window to find which performed best for different age and gender groups. All had positive messages (noting that Ms. McCormack had been endorsed by 10 Michigan newspapers, for example) with the aim of boosting recognition of her name by Election Day.

While Mr. Koster notes that efforts on behalf of the Democratic slate helped bring Ms. McCormack to within striking distance, he thinks the Facebook ads must have been the ultimate needle-mover.

"[They're] the only thing that could have moved her to being ahead of everyone else from being tied with every else," he said.

However, in the absence of scientific exit-polling data, there are other possibilities. One other differentiator for the campaign was celebrity, since Ms. McCormack's actress sister Mary McCormack rallied fellow former cast members from "The West Wing " to record a four-minute YouTube video on the candidate's behalf. (It was linked to in one of the Facebook ads and racked up more than a million views.)

Another possibility is that the heavy dose of TV attack ads targeting Ms. McCormack had the unintended effect of causing voters to remember her in a technically nonpartisan race where name recognition was crucial, since candidates' party affiliations weren't presented on the ballot.

"The ad could definitely have [had] a potential outcome of increasing her name identification, and also making individuals inclined to support her due to the outlandishness of the claim," said Mr. Hoadley in an email.

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