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 TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America 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.

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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 SteyerTom SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Here's how Biden can win over the minority vote and the Rust Belt MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCOVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Gloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Police killing in Minneapolis puts new scrutiny on Biden pick MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersGloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities MORE (I-Vt.) have all spent more than $4 million on digital ads. The Democratic race’s front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign cancels fundraiser with Mueller prosecutor Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation 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 GillibrandSenate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D-N.Y.) spent about $750,000 on television before she ended her campaign last month. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation John Delaney endorses Biden Nevada caucuses open with a few hiccups MORE (D-Md.) has spent about $350,000 on TV spots, according to Wesleyan’s data, narrowly ahead of Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE (D-Hawaii), who spent $333,000.

Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Police killing in Minneapolis puts new scrutiny on Biden pick 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.