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Tech the Vote: Why Am I Seeing So Many Political Ads?

Image: Hillary Clinton campaign ad

Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign ad, "Getting Started". Hillary Clinton / YouTube

The 2016 presidential candidates want you -– to see their ads everywhere.

Everyone is getting in the game earlier than usual this year, and if you're an undecided voter, candidates are finding better ways to reach you, thanks to programmatic advertising, the automated buying and placing of ads.

"There's only a quarter of a million people tops that are going to impact the next election," said Jeff Green, CEO of ad-tech firm The Trade Desk. "Digital gives you the ability to speak to the right issues to the right people."

Political campaign ad spending is already up 20 percent compared to the same time period during the 2012 election cycle, according to Borrell Associates. Each candidate is spending an all-time high of more than $50 per eligible voter.

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Dan Kelly, director of sales for the Cox Media Group website Rare, explained that politicians usually start advertising heavily when it was gets close to election time, but that has changed.

"The field is so wide, and no one wants to be on that junior varsity stage, that 5 p.m. debate stage. It means you have to start spending," said Kelly.

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Programmatic advertising agencies break down online user behavior to help candidates figure out where they should place their ads to reach the people most likely to put a check mark by their name. These ad tech firms range from divisions of Google and Facebook to more specialized companies like Rubicon and The Trade Desk.

"It's now very, very focused on leveraging data to make decisions of what [types of] media to buy," said Andy Monfried, founder and CEO of data management platform Lotame. "Data gives a much more complete profile."

Like previous elections, candidates are more interested in finding those undecided voters. In the past this resulted in advertising dollars flowing heavily toward swing states.

But thanks to advancements in data analysis, politicians can get even more specific than a particular region. Ad tech firms track user behavior either by placing a small snippet of tracking code called a cookie on a website or working with a third-party company that collects user information online. After crunching the numbers, these businesses can determine behavioral trends.

For example, they can find out a person's political leanings from the items they buy using statistical likelihoods. The Trade Desk's Green said that one of the insights it derived was that Democrats are more likely to buy grapefruit juice than Republicans, and favored brands like Tropicana, Snapple, Welch's and Martinelli's. (In case you were wondering, Grand Old Party-leaning voters preferred Fuze, Sobe, Sunny D and Capri Sun.)

Ad tech firms also use these numbers to tell politicians where to place their ads. The Trade Desk would then advise a Democratic politician to advertise on a website that sold Tropicana grapefruit juice. However, for a Republican to buy an ad on that site, it would likely be a waste of money, because it's unlikely that the person viewing that page could be convinced to switch parties.

"You can get super specific in what you say because you can only show your gun ad to the gun owner in Ohio and talk about Social Security to the elderly person in Florida," Green explained. "You can make the political process positive."

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Lotame's Monfried said popular target groups include soccer moms because data show much higher levels of online engagement among female voters, meaning they are more likely to share what they learn with friends. Politicians also turn to these techniques to find younger voters, who switch between device screens as many as 27 times per day, said Are Traasdahl, founder and CEO of marketing technology firm Tapad.

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"This is a whole generation that generally prefers mobile devices over fixed-line phones and computers," he said. "If candidates truly want to reach consumers they need to know what devices they are on over where voters are."

As we move to a more connected world, the ads don't have to be limited to websites. Programmatic companies can also use data analysis on television ads.

Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, which focuses on center-right voters, explained that his company's data analysis, from set-top boxes and online tracking, can figure out more detailed information than the ages of people living in certain households. It can parse down to the number of Democrats or Republicans likely to be watching that program so candidates can figure if it's worth purchasing airtime during that show.

Beach said that most candidates are interested in optimized TV ad buying in order to reach swaths of the 35 and older demographic. The targeting can get even more granular: Companies like Cablevision and selected satellite providers allow for addressable ad buys, which means a candidate could have their ad play on a specific person's TV screen, true one-to-one advertising. Of course, that comes with a higher price tag.

"One of the biggest shifts we see, is we can now create ad campaigns for very niche audiences," said Beach. "We have to get away from that idea that one everyone is going to sit on the couch, and they're going to see the same ad. You have to create different ads for different voters."

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There is always the danger that voters will get fatigued. However, programmatic companies hope that because their information is so detailed people will see relevant ads and be more interested in what candidates have to say. Whether you agree with that or not, Rare's Kelly strongly believes these methods are already captivating the voting public.

"The election is built up so much that you're looking at a huge group of millennials that are getting to the point where they're really paying attention," Kelly said. "And, you should care about what is going on with these candidates."