If you are already feeling overwhelmed by the incessant coverage of a presidential election that's still 15 months away, we have some bad news: It is about to get a lot worse, especially on your phones and in your social media feeds. After spending $159 million on digital advertising in 2012, candidates and their supporters will pour more than $1 billion into spots that will appear in voters’ Facebook feeds, smartphones and email in-boxes in 2016, media research firm Borrell Associates says.

The digital surge is part of a 20 percent increase in ad spending Borrell anticipates for 2016, bringing the projected grand spending total to $11.4 billion. “This is the year digital spending moves from asterisk to contender as a political advertising media choice,” writes the report’s principal author, Kip Cassino. “From 2016, its share will only grow -- mostly at the expense of broadcast TV.”

The campaigns’ moves to digital advertising are the result of three larger media trends: the growing centrality of social media, the rise of mobile content consumption and the emerging capability to target ads to specific swaths of the population in real time. All three give political advertisers the ability to reach larger numbers of people.

Rise Of The Machines

According to eMarketer, spending on real-time bidding has more than tripled since 2012, to more than $6 billion. While that growth has largely been fueled by retailers such as Amazon, Target and Walmart, political operatives are embracing programmatic advertising as well, and it won't be long before automated advertising becomes central to all political campaigns. 

“Given the parallel development of programmatic buying and selling of digital advertising, it can be expected that most -- if not eventually all -- of this ad volume will be automatically sold and purchased through almost instantaneous computer-to-computer transactions,” Cassino writes.

Programmatic technology already allows advertisers to reach a person based on a number of factors, including physical location, age, gender, credit history -- and even more esoteric measures like musical taste. How sophisticated -- or invasive -- this technology gets may be hard to predict. “A new day in political advertising has begun,” Cassino writes, “and it will continue to behave differently than any other advertising category.”

Social Animals

Ever since candidate Barack Obama successfully tapped into social media during his 2008 campaign, both Democrats and Republicans have been ramping up their social media efforts, doing everything from hiring full-time social media strategists to buying Twitter followers. This coming year, Borrell anticipates that social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others will eat up more than half of all digital ad spending -- a more than tenfold increase since 2012.

Because the average American spends nearly four hours looking at their phones every day, the candidates and their campaign managers have decided to spend more time there, too -- the candidates and their supporters will spend 12 times more money on mobile ads in 2016 than they did in 2012, the Borrell report says.

borrell_digitaladspend As digital advertising becomes more precise and more automated, it is projected to become the second-largest area of spending for politicians. Photo: Borrell Associates

The Surge Continues

While these shifts are significant, they have merely pushed digital from the margins into the mix of overall spending: Digital spending on the 2016 presidential campaigns continues to lag behind a number of more traditional media, including radio and newspapers, as well as longtime heavyweights broadcast and cable television.

But it won’t be long before everybody else, aside from broadcast television, is bowing down to digital. Borrell expects that huge gains in digital video and social media will push digital ad spending on campaigns to nearly $3.3 billion during the 2020 election, which would make digital ad spending the second-biggest area of spending, behind only broadcast TV.

"A year away from the party conventions and 15 months away from the big Election Day of 2016," Cassino writes, "the party has already started."