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 TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act 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 SteyerTom SteyerTV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month Inslee calls Biden climate plan 'perfect for the moment' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration finalizes plan to open up Alaska wildlife refuge to drilling | California finalizes fuel efficiency deal with five automakers, undercutting Trump | Democrats use vulnerable GOP senators to get rare win on environment 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 ButtigiegBillionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds On The Money: Half of states deplete funds for Trump's 0 unemployment expansion | EU appealing ruling in Apple tax case | House Democrats include more aid for airlines in coronavirus package Warren, Khanna request IG investigation into Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Sanders tells Maher 'there will be a number of plans' to remove Trump if he loses Sirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters 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 says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins 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 GillibrandSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Suburban moms are going to decide the 2020 election MORE (D-N.Y.) spent about $750,000 on television before she ended her campaign last month. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.) has spent about $350,000 on TV spots, according to Wesleyan’s data, narrowly ahead of Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardRepublicans call on DOJ to investigate Netflix over 'Cuties' film Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates Gabbard says she 'was not invited to participate in any way' in Democratic convention MORE (D-Hawaii), who spent $333,000.

Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act What Kamala Harris' VP nomination means to us Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' 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.