When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced in mid-December that he would “actively explore” running for the Republican presidential nomination, curious parties took to Google to learn more about him. While they were there, many of them were greeted by another politician’s name at the bottom of the page—one they hadn’t searched for.
“Join a movement working to shrink government. Not grow it,” read one of the ads, placed by RandPAC, the political action committee supporting Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is himself expected to run for the nomination. Another read: “We need leaders who will stand against Common Core.”
A few weeks later, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced that he would leave his talk show at Fox News to ponder a presidential bid, the phenomenon occurred again: “Less Taxes Not More… We Need Leaders Who Will Cut Taxes Not Raise Them. Join Us!”
For Team Paul, this passive-aggressive trolling campaign is the equivalent of lurking in the back of the room during your opponent’s debate prep and pelting them with spitballs.
The ads have a dual purpose. First, they allow Paul to siphon off attention from whichever potential candidate is making news. Second, they allow his campaign to underscore the weaknesses of other candidates by highlighting Paul’s strengths.
With a verbal wink, Paul’s senior adviser Doug Stafford said they had chosen this method of pre-campaign campaigning “mostly because we like to amuse ourselves.”
But he added that the tactic ensured all “relevant” topics in the world of politics were back to the world of Paul.
“It’s sort of our way of inserting Rand in what people are talking about,” he said.
Put simply, it’s a way for Paul to be part of a conversation without contributing anything other than his presence.
But the ads are not just intended to remind the Google-curious that Paul exists and is thinking about running for president. They are also a clever, cost-effective (Google only requires you to pay for ads that have been clicked on) way of introducing the would-be Bush or Huckabee fans to Paul.
“Let’s say 100 people search ‘Jeb Bush,’ and 20 or 30 of them click on Rand instead,” Stafford said. “We want people to click on it.”
Unlike with old-school mailers, campaigns can be sure of exactly how many targeted digital ads people see and how effective they are in getting donations. They also target the right people: If someone is already Googling Bush or Huckabee, there is a good chance they care about the presidential election.
“If someone takes a couple of seconds out of their day to type a candidate’s name into Google or any other search engine, it’s a pretty big step,” one GOP strategist said. Campaigns that buy these types of ads, like Team Paul, the Republican added, are “trying to capture the intent of someone who is searching for something.”
The ads are the work of Vincent Harris, Paul’s superstar digital strategist, who coincidentally worked for Huckabee in Iowa for three months in 2007.
Asked if Team Paul planned to purchase targeted ads for other 2016 contenders like Chris Christie and Rick Perry, Harris danced: “Those names seem like people that it would certainly make sense to advertise on with targeted messages as the year progresses… The digital side of the PAC and Rand 2016 will always be engaging where the news is.”
Asked the same question, Stafford was coy: “I mean, if we don’t now, won’t the other ones be offended?”
Offending the other ones has been a central strategy for Paul over the last year. He has picked pre-primary brawls with Christie, Perry, and Marco Rubio. But the comparatively passive-aggressive nature of the targeted ads provides insight into the psychology of Paul’s campaign and, by extension, Paul himself. In spirit, he is the kid at the back of the class who believes he has all the answers, and he will sigh or yawn loudly when one of his dimmer peers has the floor.