How Could Programmatic TV Have Helped Bill Clinton And George H.W. Bush?

In the classic time-travel film “Back to the Future Part II,” Biff, the delightfully evil antagonist, uses a sports almanac from the future to place surefire bets on sports teams that win him millions. It’s a fun concept that’s been used in a variety of time-travel stories – using a tool from the future to alter the outcome of the past.


Given the current political landscape, what would have happened during past elections if presidential candidates were secretly given the advanced TV advertising capabilities we have today?


The 1992 presidential race between Bill Clinton and incumbent president George H.W. Bush, for example, was decided by a margin of just 5.5% of the popular vote, or 5.8 million voters. Clinton won. While this number isn’t reflective of the final United States Electoral College vote – Clinton with 370, Bush with 168 – it’s still interesting to consider how programmatic TV advertising could have affected the election result.


Both candidates had campaign budgets of approximately $60 million. Both relied heavily on TV advertising, with Bush’s TV campaign focused almost entirely on national insertions and Clinton opting for targeted local campaigns.


Looking through a programmatic TV lens, it’s not hard to imagine a different outcome to the race for the White House.


The Clinton Connection

Clinton had two big narratives that helped him gain traction.


He was personable. He made an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show wearing sunglasses and playing the saxophone. The performance helped humanize him to the masses and resulted in younger voters relating to him.


He was also born poor and worked his way to wealth and political power. This resonated strongly with blue-collar workers who clamored to know where this upstart came from.


Clinton could have used programmatic TV to transform either of these messages into highly effective TV reinforcement campaigns. By using data to target the precise audience that these messages most affected, Clinton could have secured those votes and then moved his attention to less-convinced audiences. Additionally, he could have created new, different messages that better resonated with an older and more affluent community.


Nearly 60% of US marketers agree that the most important benefit of programmatic TV is the ability to target audiences more precisely, according to eMarketer. During election season, that precision is more important than ever.


The Grand Old Campaign

Bush lost the ’92 popular vote by 5.5%. Swapping his national ad buys with targeted, data-enabled TV campaigns could very likely have been the tipping point to his reelection.


Consider the northeastern state of Maine, for example. While the state generally votes democratic, Clinton only received 38.7% of the popular vote, with the rest split between Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot. Maine is one of a few states in the US that allocates its electoral votes by congressional district. This means that, had Bush been able to use an addressable or data-enabled TV campaign to target the congressional districts that were most likely to swing Republican, he might have gained the small percentage of votes needed to take the state.


Additionally, the effectiveness of a hypothetical Bush programmatic TV campaign could have been further magnified when combined with addressable TV’s frequency-capping capability, reinforcing messaging with the optimal number of repetitions while eliminating wasted impressions.


Reducing Campaign Cycle Time

One of the most effective tactics used by Clinton’s campaign was to shorten the response cycle between Bush’s remarks and Clinton’s response. Bush would attack and, almost without fail, Clinton would appear within the same news cycle to deliver a highly effective counter. Clinton had the benefit of a powerful PR strategy, but this didn’t help him target the audiences most affected by those attacks.


Programmatic TV enables “mid-flight optimization,” or the ability to shift budgets mid-campaign to focus on a specific objective. So, for instance, if Bush’s attacks on Clinton’s lack of military experience resonated with veterans, then Clinton could have adjusted his strategy to focus on messages to help swing those voters back to his side. Conversely, when Clinton’s socially progressive rhetoric sparked negative interest, Bush could have shifted his budgets to capitalize on those moments of weakness. And all of this could be seen directly on the polls.


We began seeing the use of these capabilities in 2012 with the Optimizer, Barack Obama’s tool that utilized Nielsen research, publicly available voter data and Rentrak set-top-box data to target persuadable voters on TV programs they frequented. Today, candidates can target those programs and also use technology to identify when a campaign message is resonating with a particular socioeconomic group or geographic area.


By tying campaigns to performance, candidates can understand the effect their strategy is having on their strategic audience. For a brand, this might mean the difference between showing an ad that sells a product vs. one that doesn’t. For a candidate, it means votes.


Election Day

So in the 2016 campaign, how could Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump use programmatic TV?

They already are. Maybe the better question is: Who will use it most effectively?


This article originally published in AdExchanger.

Richard Hall

VP of TV Strategy

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