Beto O’Rourke’s Huge Facebook Bet

The candidate has outspent Ted Cruz by roughly $5 million—and every other candidate in the midterms by at least $3 million.

A woman wearing blue takes a selfie with three men also wearing blue
Beto O'Rourke (right) poses for a picture with a supporter in Del Rio, Texas. (Sergio Flores / Reuters)

Beto O’Rourke is placing a very big bet on Facebook—so big that he’s spent nearly as much money on that type of digital ad as the next five-biggest candidate spenders combined.

Through October 20, O’Rourke alone had spent $5.4 million advertising on the platform, according to Facebook’s Ad Archive Report. J. B. Pritzker, Kamala Harris, Andrew Cuomo, Claire McCaskill, and Heidi Heitkamp had spent $5.5 million total. O’Rourke’s opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, had spent only $427,000 on Facebook, about 1/13th as much as O’Rourke.

Much of O’Rourke’s Facebook-ad buy seems to be going toward short videos of the candidate talking to crowds or directly to the camera.

“My personal point of view is that this is really smart—especially in a state like Texas, where TV is very expensive and there are many markets that may be out of reach for [O’Rourke],” said Dan Wagner, the chief analytics officer for the Obama 2012 campaign.

The two Texas Senate hopefuls are relatively close in spending on television ads. While O’Rourke had spent more than $15 million on television ads through mid-October, Cruz and associated PACs had spent $12 million and were on pace to nearly catch up there. O’Rourke has also spent $1.3 million on Google ads, also top among all candidates, though by a much narrower margin (Rick Scott has spent more than $1 million). Cruz has spent little on Google—$181,000—according to the company’s political transparency report.

O’Rourke is still considered a long shot to win the Senate seat in a state that Donald Trump carried by 9 percent. But his unexpected fund-raising success—pulling in $62 million through September 30—has catapulted the relatively unknown congressman from El Paso onto the national stage. Viral videos of O’Rourke’s speeches have traveled far, driven in part by left-of-center media sites such as NowThis. One on NFL players kneeling got 46 million views.

But O’Rourke’s own video team has proved able to get and recognize hot footage, according to Kasra Shokat, a digital-media strategist at the consultancy Winning Mark. “He has invested a ton of infrastructure that can turn around and produce video on a dime and get those up quickly,” Shokat said. “That’s the kind of engaging content that works really well.”

Shokat said he’s begun to recommend that campaigns, especially those of charismatic talkers, hire full-time video help to create content.

According to an analysis of Facebook’s political-ad archive by NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering’s Online Political Ads Transparency Project, the $400,000 that O’Rourke’s campaign spent from September 9 to September 22 generated a minimum of 19.4 million impressions and likely many, many more. (Facebook provides only a range for people who have seen a particular ad, and the team chooses the smallest number.) So it’s looking like O’Rourke’s total spending on Facebook has generated into the hundreds of millions of impressions.

The Transparency Project’s analysis of O’Rourke’s campaign shows that he began to ramp up spending on Facebook in July and has continued to run hundreds of different ads supported by (in aggregate) tens of thousands of dollars. The bulk of O’Rourke’s advertising has, as you’d expect, been targeted inside Texas, but his fund-raising entreaties were spread out nationally.

Beto O’Rourke’s per capita impressions by state September 9–22 (Online Political Ads Transparency Project)

Facebook remains an afterthought for most Senate candidates. Republican Ron DeSantis of Florida, for example, has raised $44 million, and his campaign and associated entities have spent less than $200,000 on a meager number of Facebook ads.

O’Rourke’s remarkable fund-raising might not be duplicative by candidates with less star power or in less contentious races—and who knows, maybe he’ll get crushed. But if O’Rourke’s Facebook-heavy campaign surprises, even with a closer-than-expected loss, his approach could be a blueprint for state-level candidates devoting more resources to the platform.