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 TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC 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 ParscaleBrad ParscaleAides tried to get Trump to stop attacking McCain in hopes of clinching Arizona: report MORE, 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 SteyerTop 12 political donors accounted for almost 1 of every 13 dollars raised since 2009: study California Democrats weigh their recall options Why we should be leery of companies entering political fray 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 ButtigiegHigh-speed rail getting last minute push in Congress Buttigieg: Bipartisan deal on infrastructure 'strongly preferred' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC On The Money: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process on Wednesday | Four states emerge as test case for cutting off jobless benefits Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC Zombie Tax punishes farmers to fill DC coffers Progressives threaten to block bipartisan infrastructure proposal MORE (I-Vt.) have all spent more than $4 million on digital ads. The Democratic race’s front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics 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 GillibrandCosmetic chemicals need a makeover Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study' MORE (D-N.Y.) spent about $750,000 on television before she ended her campaign last month. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyLobbying world Coronavirus 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 MORE (D-Md.) has spent about $350,000 on TV spots, according to Wesleyan’s data, narrowly ahead of Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard on Chicago mayor's decision to limit media interviews to people of color: 'Anti-white racism' Fox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials MORE (D-Hawaii), who spent $333,000.

Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisDemocrats learn hard truths about Capitol breach Harris calls for pathway to citizenship for Dreamers on DACA anniversary Abbott says he'll solicit public donations for border wall 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.