A super PAC supporting Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) has developed a way to share information and strategy with his presidential campaign in a manner that experts say is both novel and right at the end of the legal boundaries for permissible coordination.
The super PAC, Act Now On Climate, is currently running advertisements with subtle, embedded signals that the campaign can mine for critical voter information and use to hone its own social media and advertising strategies. The tactic has drawn the attention of Democratic digital strategists and raised eyebrows among ethics watchdogs. But the campaign hasnt asked for the help and says it isnt mining the data.
The Inslee campaign is growing grassroots momentum behind the only candidate who will put climate change first, said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for Inslee. We are not monitoring messaging data from outside groups."
They apparent key to the scheme is Act Now On Climates Facebook page, which its used to run hundreds of pro-Inslee ads since March. The vast majority of those adsall but two of themlink directly to the Inslee campaigns official website, and urge visitors to sign petitions or register their names and email addresses with the campaign.
Its rare for a super PAC to so directly promote the work product of the campaign itself. But ANOCs strategy appears to be geared not only towards advertising Inslee himself but also collecting valuable data that can be used by his campaignall without ever communicating with the candidate or his staff.
Each of the ANOC ads that link to Inslees campaign website uses a unique ID number affixed to the end of the web address. To an average Facebook user, it looks like a meaningless string of characters, something like http://JayInslee.com/join?source=FB&subsource=79. But that subsource number is significant: it corresponds to a specific Facebook ad (or series of identical ads) run by ANOC. So far, the page has run promoted Facebook posts linking to Inslees campaign website with 73 different subsource codes, each corresponding to a different ad.
Administrators of any website can easily see the exact links that visitors clicked to get to that website. So Inslees digital staff can tally up visits from a specific subsource number. Using Facebooks public database of political ads, it can then see which ANOC ad used that unique identifier, and it can see the the ages, genders, and locations of the people who viewed the ad, giving the campaign plenty of demographic information about who clicked on a particular super PAC ad.
The resulting information could provide valuable insights into messaging strategy. The campaign could see, for instance, how the messaging in one ANOC ad performed relative to another, or how young people or seniors or women or residents of Iowa or New Hampshire responded to a certain ads framing. That could be particularly helpful Inslee, who is currently lagging in the large Democratic field and who is unique among candidates for his aggressive focus on climate change, an issue that even committed activists have found difficult to communicate.
ANOC is run by Corey Platt, a former political director at the Democratic Governors Association, which Inslee led during the 2018 election cycle. Inslee is the only 2020 Democratic contender backed by a candidate-specific super PAC who has not publicly disavowed the group.
On Facebook, ANOCs ad strategies vary widelyfrom dire, sincere warnings about the impending damage that climate change will cause to lighter and more youth-focused ads incorporating popular memes and pop culture icons.
Those who click on ANOCs ads and are directed to Inslees campaign website are generally prompted to sign up for the campaigns email list. Theres no guarantee that they will, but their visit to the website can at least indicate to the campaign that ANOCs ad was compelling enough to prompt a visit. Through a Facebook technology known as the Pixel, the campaign can also keep track of the users who visit its website from any given ANOC ad, and retarget those users later with ads of its own. Though it cant identify the users by name, having ready-made lists of voters, broken down by which ANOC ad appealed to them, might easily give the campaign a leg-up with its own Facebook ad buys.
The arrangement has struck some Democratic operatives as legally problematic, since Inslee is being provided with information about potential donors and supporters without ever having to spend a dollar from his own campaign account.
Facebook users who follow ANOCs ads to Inslees website and sign up for his email list have a material value to the campaign, said one Democratic digital strategist. The campaigns have to build these lists but they have to do it against the backdrop of a budget. Here, a super PAC that can take unlimited donations is doing the heavy lifting.
But campaign finance experts say its more likely that Inslees super PAC is walking up to the edge of the law than stepping over it. Super PACs can accept unlimited donations only because they are technically independent of the campaigns they support. They are legally barred from coordinating with or making contributionsfinancial or in-kindto campaigns. Were ANOC to have collected voter information and messaging data, and then packaged and given it to the Inslee campaign, it would likely have violated the law. But simply pushing that data in the campaigns direction remains permissible.
My pretty strong instinct is that is a novel and slightly boundary pushing approach but probably within the letter of the law, said Adav Noti, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center. Even an aggressive regulator would probably find it to be lawful. And, of course, there is no aggressive regulator right now.