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Facebook pulls back the veil (ever so slightly) on political ads

One ad for Ted Cruz shows how PACs and campaigns can target voters on Facebook.

Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Regardless of which candidate wins the White House, Facebook will emerge as one of the big winners of the 2016 political season.

Analysts project $1.1 billion in political ad revenue will to flow to digital platforms in this election cycle — quadruple the spending from the 2012 elections. Facebook and Google likely will scoop up as much as 85 percent of that revenue, with Twitter a distant third, according to Citi Research’s estimates.

Facebook has been preparing for this moment for a while, increasing the size of its government and politics team since the last presidential election and rolling out new features designed to aid political campaigns. The social network stands to reap anywhere from $300 million to $550 million, Citi estimates. (That may seem like a big number, but it’s just 2 percent of Facebook’s projected 2016 revenues.)

We took a closer look at why political action committees and campaigns might find Facebook appealing, beyond the obvious: Its massive reach. (For the record, 198 million Americans month use Facebook every month — more than the total number of registered voters in the U.S.)

Facebook offered the example of an ad campaign in support of Sen. Ted Cruz in his home state of Texas. The Keep the Promise super PAC used the social network to build momentum in the run-up to the Super Tuesday primary.

Losing the state would have been, to paraphrase a certain New York billionaire, a “disaster.”

“They were looking to increase preference for Cruz in battleground states prior to Super Tuesday,” said Erik Hawkins, who oversees Facebook’s political ad sales.

Facebook has tools for campaigns to target prospective voters by age, gender, Congressional district or even interests. Strategists can upload files of likely supporters to look for matches among Facebook’s users (who are easy to identify, because they use their real names and furnish valid email addresses).

“Every campaign knows who their target demographic is, they know where they have strong support,” Hawkins said. “They come to Facebook and say who their likely voter is — and we help them find it.”

Hawkins won’t say exactly who Keep the Promise was trying to reach with its “We the People” ad, which opens with one of Cruz’s trademark attacks on the media and features images of the candidate on the campaign trail, condemning Washington and career politicians and issuing a call to take back power for “we the people.”

But Facebook conducted polling, before and after the campaign, to measure its effectiveness. “We asked, ‘Who do you intend to support for president of the United States?'” Hawkins said. “We found an increase in support for Ted Cruz. That is what they were intending to do and that is what in fact happened.”Facebook won’t provide us any more data to illustrate how much of a “lift” the online campaign achieved — and the political action committee didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.

Cruz won the Texas Republican primary, capturing 44 percent of the vote and defeating Donald Trump, who placed a distant second.

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