Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-jbqgn Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-18T16:05:06.889Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Political Advertising Online and Offline

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 August 2020

Wesleyan University
Bowdoin College
Stanford University
Emory University
Washington State University
Erika Franklin Fowler, Professor of Government, Department of Government, Wesleyan University,
Michael M. Franz, Professor of Government and Legal Studies, Department of Government, Bowdoin College,
Gregory J. Martin, Assistant Professor of Political Economy, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University,
Zachary Peskowitz, Associate Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Emory University,
Travis N. Ridout, Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy, School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Washington State University,


Despite the rapid growth of online political advertising, the vast majority of scholarship on political advertising relies exclusively on evidence from candidates’ television advertisements. The relatively low cost of creating and deploying online advertisements and the ability to target online advertisements more precisely may broaden the set of candidates who advertise and allow candidates to craft messages to more narrow audiences than on television. Drawing on data from the newly released Facebook Ad Library API and television data from the Wesleyan Media Project, we find that a much broader set of candidates advertises on Facebook than television, particularly in down-ballot races. We then examine within-candidate variation in the strategic use and content of advertising on television relative to Facebook for all federal, statewide, and state legislative candidates in the 2018 election. Among candidates who use both advertising media, Facebook advertising occurs earlier in the campaign, is less negative, less issue focused, and more partisan than television advertising.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Except where noted in the text, analyses presented were preregistered ( prior to the release of the Facebook Ad Library. We are grateful to Laura Baum, Dolly Haddad, Colleen Bogucki, Mason Jiang, and the numerous undergraduates across our institutions for their efforts on this project. We thank Amanda Wintersieck, Devra Moehler, Abby Wood, and seminar participants at APSA, the Princeton CSDP American Politics seminar, the University of Maryland, the University of Wisconsin, the Wesleyan Media Project 2018 Post-Election Conference, and Yale for comments on previous versions. The Wesleyan Media Project acknowledges funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Wesleyan University for 2018. All views and errors are our own. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse at:



Aldrich, John H., Carson, Jamie L., Gomez, Brad T., and Rohde, David W.. 2019. Change and Continuity in the 2016 and 2018 Elections. Washington, DC: CQ Press.Google Scholar
Ali, Muhammad, Sapiezynski, Piotr, Bogen, Miranda, Korolova, Aleksandra, Mislove, Alan, and Rieke, Aaron. 2019. “Discrimination through Optimization: How Facebook’s Ad Delivery Can Lead To Biased Outcomes.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 3: Article 199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Iyengar, Shanto. 1996. Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
Anstead, Nick, Magalhães, João Carlos, Stupart, Richard, and Tambini, Damian. 2018. “Political Advertising on Facebook: The Case of the 2017 United Kingdom General Election.” London School of Economics, Working Paper. Scholar
Ballard, Andrew O., Hillygus, D. Sunshine, and Konitzer, Tobias. 2016. “Campaigning Online: Web Display Ads in the 2012 Presidential Campaign.” PS: Political Science & Politics 49 (3): 414419.Google Scholar
Barber, Benjamin R. 2001. “The Uncertainty of Digital Politics: Democracy’s Uneasy Relationship with Information Technology.” Harvard International Review 23 (1): 4247.Google Scholar
Bimber, Bruce, and Davis, Richard. 2003. Campaigning Online: The Internet in US Elections. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Bode, Leticia, Lassen, David S., Kim, Young Mie, Shah, Dhavan V., Fowler, Erika Franklin, Ridout, Travis, and Franz, Michael. 2016. “Coherent Campaigns? Campaign Broadcast and Social Messaging.” Online Information Review 40 (1): 580594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bonica, Adam. 2013. Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections: Public version 2.0. [Computer file]. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Libraries. Scholar
Bonica, Adam. 2014. “Mapping the Ideological Marketplace.” American Journal of Political Science 58 (2): 367386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Broockman, David E., and Green, Donald P.. 2014. Do Online Advertisements Increase Political Candidate’s Name Recognition or Favorability? Evidence from Randomized Field Experiments. Political Behavior 36 (2): 263289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bruell, Alexandra. 2018. “NBCU Joins ‘OpenAp’ Tv Ad Consortium, Licenses Data Assets.” Wall Street Journal, April 19. Accessed April 4, 2018.Google Scholar
Dowling, Conor M., and Wichowsky, Amber. 2015. “Attacks without Consequences? Candidates, Parties, Groups, and the Changing Face of Negative Advertising.” American Journal of Political Science 59 (1): 1936.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Druckman, James N., Kifer, Martin J., and Parkin, Michael. 2009. “Campaign Communications in U.S. Congressional Elections.” American Political Science Review 103 (3): 343366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dunaway, Johanna, Searles, Kathleen, Sui, Mingxiao, and Paul, Newly. 2018. “News Attention in a Mobile Era.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23 (2): 107124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Edelson, Laura, Sakhuja, Shikhar, Dey, Ratan, and McCoy, Damon. 2019. “An Analysis of United States Online Political Advertising Transparency.” Working Paper, NYU.Google Scholar
Egkolfopoulou, Misyrlena. 2019. “Facebook Is Big Winner in Democrats’ 2020 Presidential Debates.” Bloomberg, July 22, 2017. Accessed August 5, 2019.Google Scholar
Ferejohn, John. 1986. “Incumbent Performance and Electoral Control.” Public Choice 50: 525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fowler, Erika Franklin, Franz, Michael M., and Ridout, Travis N.. 2016. Political Advertising in the United States. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
Franz, Michael M., Franklin Fowler, Erika, Ridout, Travis, and Wang, Meredith Yiran. 2019. “The Issue Focus of Online and Television Advertising in the 2016 Presidential Campaign.” American Politics Research 48 (1): 175196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Freedman, Paul, and Goldstein, Ken. 1999. “Measuring Media Exposure and the Effects of Negative Campaign Ads.” American Journal of Political Science 43 (4): 11891208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gainous, Jason, and Wagner, Kevin M.. 2011. Rebooting American Politics: The Internet Revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
Gainous, Jason, and Wagner, Kevin M.. 2014. Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Geer, John Gray. 2006. In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gentzkow, Matthew, Shapiro, Jesse M., and Taddy, Matt. 2019. “Measuring Group Differences in High-Dimensional Choices: Method and Application to Congressional Speech.” Econometrica 87 (4): 13071340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gerber, Alan S., Gimpel, James G., Green, Donald P., and Shaw, Daron R.. 2011. “How Large and Long-lasting Are the Persuasive Effects of Televised Campaign Ads? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment.” American Political Science Review 105 (1): 135150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gibson, Rachel K., Margolis, Michael, Resnick, David, and Ward, Stephen J.. 2003. “Election Campaigning on the WWW in the USA and UK: A Comparative Analysis.” Party Politics 9 (1): 4775.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldstein, Ken, and Freedman, Paul. 2000. “New Evidence for New Arguments: Money and Advertising in the 1996 Senate Elections.” Journal of Politics 62 (4): 10871108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldstein, Ken, and Freedman, Paul. 2002a. “Campaign Advertising and Voter Turnout: New Evidence for a Stimulation Effect.” Journal of Politics 64 (3): 721740.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldstein, Ken, and Freedman, Paul. 2002b. “Lessons Learned: Campaign Advertising in the 2000 Elections.” Political Communication 19 (1): 528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hassell, Hans J. G., and Monson, J. Quin. 2014. “Campaign Targets and Messages in Direct Mail Fundraising.” Political Behavior 36 (2): 359376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Henderson, John. 2019. “Issue Distancing in Congressional Elections.” Working Paper, Yale University.Google Scholar
Hindman, Matthew. 2008. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Kahn, Kim Fridkin, and Kenney, Patrick J.. 1999. “Do Negative Campaigns Mobilize or Suppress Turnout? Clarifying the Relationship between Negativity and Participation.” American Political Science Review 93 (4): 877889.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kang, Taewoo, Fowler, Erika Franklin, Franz, Michael M., and Ridout, Travis N.. 2018. “Issue Consistency? Comparing Television Advertising, Tweets, and E-Mail in the 2014 Senate Campaigns.” Political Communication 35 (1): 3249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Krasno, Jonathan S., and Green, Donald P.. 2008. “Do Televised Presidential Ads Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” Journal of Politics 70 (1): 245261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Krupnikov, Yanna. 2011. “When Does Negativity Demobilize? Tracing the Conditional Effect of Negative.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (4): 797813.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lau, Richard R., Sigelman, Lee, and Rovner, Ivy Brown. 2007. “The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment.” Journal of Politics 69 (4): 11761209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lelkes, Yphtach, Sood, Gaurav, and Iyengar, Shanto. 2017. “The Hostile Audience: The Effect of Access to Broadband Internet on Partisan Affect.” American Journal of Political Science 61 (1): 520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lovett, Mitchell, and Peress, Michael. 2015. “Targeting Political Advertising on Television.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 10 (3): 391432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Martin, Gregory J., and Peskowitz, Zachary. 2018. “Agency Problems in Political Campaigns: Media Buying and Consulting.” American Political Science Review 112 (2): 231248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Neiheisel, Jacob, and Niebler, Sarah. 2013. “The Use of Party Brand Labels in Congressional Election Campaigns.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 38 (3): 377403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Nicas, Jack. 2018. “Facebook to Require Verified Identities for Future Political Ads.” New York Times, April 4, 2018. Accessed April 6, 2018.Google Scholar
Plasser, Fritz, and Plasser, Gunda. 2002. Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.Google Scholar
Prior, Markus. 2006. “The Incumbent in the Living Room: The Rise of Television and the Incumbency Advantage in U.S. House Elections.” Journal of Politics 68 (3): 657673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Roberts, Chris. 2013. “A Functional Analysis Comparison of Web-Only Advertisements and Traditional Television Advertisements from the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Campaigns.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 90 (1): 2338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Roese, Neal J., and Sande, Gerald N.. 1993. “Backlash Effects in Attack Politics.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 23 (8): 632653.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sides, John, and Vavreck, Lynn. 2013. The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Snyder, James M. Jr., and Strömberg, David. 2010. “Press Coverage and Political Accountability.” Journal of Political Economy 118 (2): 355408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stromer-Galley, Jennifer. 2014. Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sulkin, Tracy. 2011. The Legislative Legacy of Congressional Campaigns. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Urban, Carly, and Niebler, Sarah. 2014. “Dollars on the Sidewalk: Should U.S. Presidential Candidates Advertise in Uncontested States?American Journal of Political Science 58: 322336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wood, Abby K., and Ravel, Ann M.. 2018. “Fool Me Once: Regulating Fake News and Other Online Political Advertising.” Southern California Law Review 91 (6): 12231278.Google Scholar
Young, Dannagal Goldthwaite. 2019. Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Supplementary material: Link

Fowler et al. Dataset

Supplementary material: PDF

Fowler et al. supplementary material

Online Appendix

Download Fowler et al. supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 3.2 MB
Submit a response


No Comments have been published for this article.