Analysis: 2020 digital spending vastly outpaces TV ads

Analysis: 2020 digital spending vastly outpaces TV ads
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2020 presidential campaigns have spent almost six times more money on digital advertising on platforms such as Facebook and Google than they have on television advertising, according to a new analysis.

Sixteen White House candidates including President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE have spent at least $1 million on digital campaign ads, according to the nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. All told, the contenders have spent more than $60 million on online ads, compared to just $11 million on television.


None have spent more than Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee, which have dropped a combined $15.9 million on online spending. The Trump team is led by manager Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE, who got his start in the digital space. Much of the campaign’s money has gone into building an army of small-dollar donors who could give Trump a huge cash advantage over the eventual Democratic nominee.

On the Democratic side, relative newcomer Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerKrystal Ball: Influx of billionaire cash in 2020 contest is 'deeply corrosive' to 'civil society' Booker says he will not make December debate stage Democrats set early state primary debates for 2020 MORE has spent more than $6.6 million on online ads. Steyer, a billionaire philanthropist who built his own donor list through his Need to Impeach campaign even before he entered the race, announced recently he had reached the number of donors necessary to qualify for the next round of Democratic debates in October.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' Biden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Bill Weld: As many as six GOP senators privately support convicting Trump MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director MORE (I-Vt.) have all spent more than $4 million on digital ads. The Democratic race’s front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Democrat representing Pennsylvania district Trump carried plans to vote to impeach  MORE, has dropped $3.2 million.

Steyer, who has poured millions into his own campaign, also leads the Democratic pack in television spending. He has spent just over $9 million to air some 26,000 television spots.

Most of the other candidates who invested early in television seemed to do so in order to bolster their low poll numbers. Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAdvocacy groups decry Trump's 'anti-family policies' ahead of White House summit This bipartisan plan is the most progressive approach to paid parental leave Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' MORE (D-N.Y.) spent about $750,000 on television before she ended her campaign last month. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyThe great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates MORE (D-Md.) has spent about $350,000 on TV spots, according to Wesleyan’s data, narrowly ahead of Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardDemocrats set early state primary debates for 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Gabbard news items generating more social interactions than other 2020 Democrats: study MORE (D-Hawaii), who spent $333,000.

Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices | Senate confirms Trump FDA pick | Trump officials approve Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Kamala Harris dropped out, but let's keep her mental health plan alive MORE (D-Calif.) have made smaller early forays into the television space.

The dominance of digital spending reflects both the evolution of the modern political campaign and the particular reality of this year’s presidential contest, in which the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has forced candidates to build their fundraising lists in order to qualify for the party’s primary debates.

“Part of” the big dependence on digital campaigning “is the changing marketplace for how people consume information,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist who specializes in digital advertising. “But the other part is the central focus on digital fundraising for any serious campaign. I would bet the vast majority of ads aren’t persuasion, they’re fundraising. The gap is particularly wide in an off year when campaigns are building infrastructure.”

Several Democratic candidates have complained about the amount of money it costs them to attract even a single donor on platforms like Google and Facebook. Some are paying as much as $50 to attract a $1 donation, all in hopes of amassing the 130,000 individual donors the DNC requires to make the debate stage.

“At this stage in the campaign, candidate spending is driven by supporter list-building and investing heavily to secure enough donors to qualify for the Democratic debates,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan project.

Candidates have tended to favor Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram over Google and its video channel, YouTube. The Wesleyan report released Thursday found campaigns spent about twice as much, $44 million, on Facebook and Instagram as on Google and YouTube, $21 million.

The gap between digital and television is almost certain to close as campaigns begin spending ahead of the first primary contests in February. Campaigns targeting Iowa caucusgoers and New Hampshire primary voters are likely to increase their television presence in key markets like Des Moines and Manchester, the researchers said.

“We expect TV advertising to ramp up as we get closer to voting in various states,” said Travis Ridout, Wesleyan’s other co-director. “Typically, TV ads are used for persuasion, which is much more important closer to Election Day than it is now.”

So far, Democrats running for president have stayed largely positive in their ads. Ninety-nine percent of the television spots Democratic candidates have run to date have been positive. None of the $9 million Steyer has spent included mentioning any of his opponents.

Predictably, voters in Iowa’s largest markets have been deluged by the most advertisements so far. Four of the five markets that have seen the most advertising are in the first-in-the-nation caucus state — Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Sioux City and Davenport.

Las Vegas, where Steyer is the only candidate to run ads, is the only non-Iowa market to crack the top five.