Democrats sought young voter support via Snapchat political ads, but Republicans steered clear

Ella Lee

WASHINGTON — Using campaign-inspired selfie filters and quick videos urging people to register to vote, candidates and advocacy groups have taken to Snapchat for political advertising in 2022, and none more so than those on the left.

Candidates and interest groups have spent more than $10 million on Snapchat political ads this year, an increase of more than 1,600% since 2018, the first year the social media platform allowed political ads. 

Yet, it's a drop in the bucket compared to ad spending on other social networks, according to J. Scott Babwah Brennen, head of online expression policy at the University of North Carolina's Center on Technology Policy.

"There are single (ad) campaigns that are bigger than that," Babwah Brennen said. 

The political ad tracking firm AdImpact projects more than $1.4 billion will be spent on digital advertising as a whole during the 2022 election cycle.

In the last month alone, Democrat Beto O'Rourke's campaign for Texas governor spent one-quarter of Snap's 2022 total political ad spends on just Facebook political ads. 

But Snapchat is one of a handful of social media platforms actively used by young people — almost 60%, according to Pew Research Center — that allows political advertising, increasing its potential as a powerful tool for registering and courting voters. Platforms like TikTok, Twitter and BeReal, where many young people spend time, don't allow political advertising.

"I think that campaigns writ large tend to be vastly under-using Snap as a platform and probably over rely on some other places, especially Facebook, to reach these younger voters," said Andy Meyer, a partner with the progressive political consulting agency AL Media, which has placed more than $875,000  of political ads on Snapchat this year.

Who's spending on Snapchat?

Democrats and liberal interest groups dominate Snapchat's 2022 political ad spending, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the platform's public data. 

Planned Parenthood Federation of America spent the most on political ads this year, dropping more than $552,000 on infographics and short videos about abortion access nationwide. Several other Planned Parenthood affiliates add an additional $471,000 in issue-based ad spending.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is the top-spending candidate on Snapchat, in line with his position as the highest-spending 2022 Senate candidate in general, according to Federal Election Commission data

Warnock has spent more than $306,000 on Snapchat political ads since the start of the year. While some ads take specific jabs at his opponent, Republican Herschel Walker, ad campaigns Warnock spent the most on simply encourage Georgians to vote. 

Democratic candidates in key congressional races like Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, Nevada Rep. Catherine Cortez Masto and Florida Rep. Val Demings (who ran for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's seat and lost) are also among the top political ad spenders on the platform. Others include candidates in high-profile gubernatorial races, like Georgia's Stacey Abrams and O'Rourke.

Republican candidates and conservative interest groups, in comparison, have hardly tapped into the platform, USA TODAY's analysis found.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent more than $4,600 in Snapchat political ads this year, while the Democratic congressional fundraising arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, outspent it by more than 1,200%, dropping over $64,000 this year.

Dakota Shultz, a political unknown who ran for Missouri's 6th Congressional District and lost in the primary after receiving fewer than 5,000 votes, is the highest-spending 2022 Republican candidate, placing $3,045 in political ads on the platform. 

He's followed by Rubio, who spent $2,015 in Snapchat ads. Demings, Rubio's opponent, spent more than $38,000, by comparison.

“Republicans would be missing an opportunity by not investing in these platforms, because elections are about persuading and mobilizing voters," Meyer said. "We found that Snap is one of the most efficient ways to reach these younger voters who are crucial to our efforts to win these elections.”

Republicans' disinterest with Snap might stem from the voters they're trying to reach. While the platform is an access point to thousands of young people, many of whom have never voted, young voters do tend to lean left, according to Pew Research Center. 

“Republicans, I think, do more often feel kind of more confident in their ability to reach their main demographic groups through other modes of advertising – digital and non-digital," Babwah Brennen said. 

The Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee did not respond to USA TODAY's requests for comment. 

Digital political advertising after 2020

The buildup to the 2020 election and its aftermath, when former President Donald Trump refused to concede the election and claimed mass voter fraud, shook up digital political advertising on most major social media platforms. 

Nearly $6 billion was spent on all political advertising in the 2020 election cycle, record-breaking at the time, according to AdImpact. That's despite the fact that Twitter and TikTok banned political advertising permanently ahead of the election. Facebook and Google temporarily banned political ads through the inauguration of President Joe Biden after the election. 

On Snapchat, all political ads are reviewed by humans to ensure the advertisements' accuracy, Snap spokesperson Pete Boogaard told USA TODAY in an emailed statement. The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media institute and newsroom, independently reviews the ads for accuracy, as well.

"Snap only started accepting political ads in 2018, and we have one of the strictest political policies for ad review to ensure that we protect our community," Boogaard said. 

Whether Snapchat will remain a competitive political advertising platform will largely rely on it sustaining relevance, along with the decision-making of other social media platforms on political advertising, Meyer said.  

If that changed, "I think we’d spend less money on Snap," Meyer said.