It was only 10 seconds long, but the video packed a punch. Idaho Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, “flipped and backed vaccine mandates,” it said.
Idaho Freedom Action, the lobbying arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, paid between $900 and $1,000 to run the ad on YouTube up to 45,000 times.
The ad was one of dozens produced by two groups, Idaho Freedom Action and Idaho Freedom PAC, affiliated with the Idaho Freedom Foundation before the May primary election. Combined, the “Idaho Freedom” groups spent about $77,000 on Google and Facebook ads targeting Republican incumbent legislators.
The ad that attacked Patrick, who lost his primary bid, wasn’t true, the five-term senator said. It referred to the Coronavirus Pause Act, a bill last legislative session that would have blocked many businesses from requiring vaccine mandates. Patrick voted in favor of the legislation and later voted against overriding the governor’s veto of the bill.
“I don’t support mandates. I don’t support whether you want a vaccine or not. That’s personal,” Patrick told the Statesman by phone. “I just didn’t vote to override the governor, and I rarely do, anyway.
“The Freedom Foundation is evil,” Patrick added.
Political advertisements flooded the internet in the weeks leading up to the May 17 primary election as political committees, candidates and influencers dished out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Meta, the company that runs Facebook, and Google, which owns YouTube, so the companies would promote ads to their users. More sophisticated than campaign yard signs and billboards, the social media ads targeted people based on their age, gender, location and online interests.
Both Meta and Google maintain libraries of political advertising they have hosted. Google — which offers video, image and text advertising — sold about $350,000 worth of political advertising shown in Idaho from March 30 through May 17.
During the same period, Idaho Freedom Action, whose vice president, Dustin Hurst, declined to comment for this story, was the top political advertiser on Facebook, spending $49,225 in the weeks leading up to the primary. The two “Idaho Freedom” groups spent between $5,500 and $7,000 promoting social media ads critical of Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, alone. Syme lost his primary bid by six votes.
Targeted social media ads tend to be relatively cheap compared to other media, like television, so they “can be a good bang for your buck,” said Jeffrey Lyons, Ph.D., a political science professor at Boise State University.
“In a very close race I would say that amounts like this could make a difference, but it’s almost impossible to really know,” Lyons told the Idaho Statesman by email.
Among top Facebook spenders, Idaho Freedom Action was followed by Brad Little for Governor ($44,314), Idaho Education Association ($40,289), Mike Crapo for U.S. Senate ($38,294) and Idahoans Against Extremism ($32,919).
Congressional races attracted the most spending on Google. The top advertisers were Mike Crapo for U.S. Senate ($74,800); American Dream Federal Action, which purchased ads in support of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson ($55,900); Social Eyes Marketing, which purchased ads on behalf of Simpson’s opponent Bryan Smith and gubernatorial candidate Ed Humphreys ($47,600); Brad Little ($42,100) and Idaho Freedom Action ($17,700).
Attack ads common on social media
Political advertising has been “much more intense this year,” compared to previous election cycles, said Patrick, who won 14 primary and general elections across 16 years in the Idaho House and Senate. This year, he lost by a few dozen votes to Glenneda Zuiderveld, who was supported by Idaho Freedom PAC.
Whether social media advertising effectively swayed voters, and made a difference in individual races this year, is unclear. But advertising around primaries likely plays a larger role than in general elections because partisanship is such a key factor, Lyons said.
“In primary elections like this — where voters aren’t deciding between a Republican and a Democrat, they are choosing among several Republicans — ads can be a lot more impactful,” he said.
An ad funded by Simpson for Congress attacking Simpson’s primary opponent, Bryan Smith, appeared in Google search results between March 30 and May 17.
Disguised as a common search engine result, save for a small “Ad” indicator, the link led to a web page titled “Injury Lawyer Bryan Smith” with the address www.bryansmithrecord.com. A preview of the web page read, “Bryan Smith made millions by taking advantage of those struggling to pay their bills.”
Smith ran his own attack ads. In April and May his campaign ordered at least $12,000 worth of Facebook ads, some of which called Simpson “liberal” and “anti-Trump.”
Social Eyes Marketing, a Boise-based company, spent about $47,600 with Google for various text and image ads on behalf of Smith and Humphreys.
One ad read, “Liberal Mike Simpson supports breaching the northwest dams,” a reference to Simpson’s sweeping plan to remove Snake River dams to save endangered salmon. The Google ad, funded by Bryan Smith for Congress, targeted people in Camas, Minidoka, Cassia, Gooding, Blaine, Twin Falls, Lincoln and Jerome counties but excluded the zip code for Sun Valley.
Meanwhile, Defend and Protect Idaho, a political action committee led by former Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney, spent about $33,000 on Facebook ads through the social media profile Idahoans Against Extremism. The videos attacked Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who unsuccessfully challenged Little for governor.
“Defend and Protect Idaho was proud to stand up for the essential work of law enforcement and condemn fringe vigilantes like Janice McGeachin from threatening the future of our great state,” Raney told the Statesman by email. “We believe that when Idahoans know the truth about politicians and their associations, they make the right choice. McGeachin was simply too extreme for Idaho.”
Another major Facebook spender in April and May was the Political Action Committee for Education, the fundraiser for the Idaho Education Association, a teachers union. About $40,300 bought space for videos endorsing candidates backed by the union.
The union’s ads accused incumbent Reps. Chad Christensen, R-Iona; Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony; Ron Nate, R-Rexburg; and Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, of casting recent votes that “undermined and threatened your public schools.”
Older demographics targeted
A campaign advertisement showed Gov. Brad Little speaking with people in the Idaho Capitol, in a warehouse and on a ranch. Little, in a voice-over, touted his first-term accomplishments: a balanced budget and surplus along with tax breaks.
According to Google, Little’s campaign paid the company $8,000 to $9,000 to publish the ad on YouTube. The 16-second clip was shown between 400,000 and 450,000 times from April 15 to May 11.
But if you’re younger than 55, you may not have seen it.
That’s because the video was meant for people 55 and older who live in eastern Idaho, according to the advertisement’s “targeting criteria,” a Google tool that “reflects who this advertiser was trying to reach and where.” Similar videos from Little’s campaign targeted seniors in Twin Falls and North Idaho.
“Targeted ads definitely have a lot of appeal to political campaigns for the same reasons that they are appealing for private sector marketing,” Lyons said. “Campaigns are often able to identify specific demographic groups that they want to reach out to for either persuasion messaging or voter mobilization messaging, and these kinds of ads allow the campaign to tailor the message to the specific group.”
Little’s campaign spent roughly $86,000 on Facebook and Google ads leading up to the primary election. That was second only to Crapo’s reelection committee when combining ad sales between the two companies.
Crapo’s campaign spent about $113,000 on advertising that focused on Democratic President Joe Biden’s economic policies and touted the Idaho Falls senator’s conservative policies and endorsement from former President Donald Trump.
Like Little’s advertising, Crapo’s was targeted by age; people younger than 35 were excluded from Crapo’s targeting criteria on some YouTube ads, for example.
American Dream Federal Action, a political action committee that spent nearly $9 million on campaigns for conservative candidates across the country, gave around $80,000 to Facebook and Google to promote Simpson’s campaign. The Simpson for Congress committee spent another roughly $5,000 on social media advertising.
YouTube ads supporting the Burley congressman targeted people 35 and older in Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District.
The targeting tools help campaigns avoid wasting resources on groups they aren’t interested in contacting, which happens with television ads, Lyons said.
“It makes a lot of sense that Brad Little’s campaign spent money to target the 55+ age group,” he said, as “those are the people who vote at the highest rates so his campaign is selectively reaching the people who are the most likely to actually cast a ballot.”
While Little was a top spender on social media, Little’s primary opponent, McGeachin, spent between $4,200 and $5,700 promoting Facebook ads. She received 24.9% of the votes in the Republican primary.
After weeks of campaigning against incumbent legislators, particularly senators, Idaho Freedom Action President Wayne Hoffman claimed victory in the Republican primary. The Idaho Senate “will thankfully be a very different place in 2023,” Hoffman wrote in a May blog post, assuming GOP nominees will win competitive races in the general election.
“As many as a dozen conservative legislators will take their seats in the 35-member chamber following the results of the May Republican Primary,” he wrote.
Patrick said this year he spent “much more money than I’ve ever spent,” including $2,160 on Facebook, to counter opposition from the Idaho Freedom coalition and other right-wing groups.
“It had a huge effect, and there was no truth to most of it,” Patrick said.
This story was originally published July 10, 2022 4:00 AM.