Trump campaign bets big on digital ads to counter Biden

President Trump’s campaign is investing heavily in digital ads on Facebook and Google as it seeks to counter Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s massive advantage in television advertising.

The Trump campaign has plowed more than $170 million into Facebook and Google since 2019, compared with $90 million by the Biden campaign, according to data from Bully Pulpit Interactive.

Biden’s campaign has ramped up its spending on Facebook and Google in recent weeks, cutting into Trump’s spending advantage and matching the president’s digital spending in battleground states. The Biden campaign trounced the Trump campaign in digital fundraising in August.

Democrats are dismissive of the Trump campaign’s digital spending, noting that a large percentage of it is aimed at fundraising for his own campaign or energizing his existing base of online supporters rather than reaching new persuadable voters.

But the Trump campaign is doubling down on a Facebook and Google strategy that worked in 2016, going big on digital outreach aimed at its own supporters even as it gets swamped on the television airwaves by Biden’s spending barrage.

Republicans say the Trump campaign’s long-running investments in digital will ensure maximum turnout among the president’s base and could produce valuable insight into how to persuade undecided voters down the stretch.

“The Trump campaign made earlier investments in small-dollar donor acquisitions, and the millions they’ve spent has brought in tons of data on their supporters,” said Michael Duncan, a GOP operative who has run digital campaign operations for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The scale they’ve been able to produce in small-dollar fundraising is large enough to make it their own get-out-the-vote universe. It’s the largest voter file improvement program in history,” he added.

The digital wars come as Democrats are increasingly worried that Facebook has become a right-wing echo chamber.

And there are questions about whether the Trump campaign’s digital strategy will reach new voters the president will need to win a potentially close election against Biden in November.

Democratic outside groups have filled the digital gap for Biden as his campaign has gotten up to speed.

Groups such as Stop Republicans and Priorities USA have spent tens of millions of dollars on Facebook and Google this cycle. There are no Republican outside groups with significant Facebook or Google investments.

Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, tracked its digital ads in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and claims that the ads decreased Trump’s net approval rating in those states by 2.5 points between April and July.

And Biden has drawn closer to Trump on Facebook and Google spending in recent weeks.

The Biden campaign has spent more than $9 million a week on Facebook and Google since the middle of August. Before that, the campaign had not spent more than $6 million in a week.

Since the beginning of August, the Trump campaign has outspent the Biden campaign by $20 million on Facebook and Google, while the Biden campaign has outpaced the Trump campaign by $30 million on the television airwaves.

Television advertising is viewed by experts as the best model for persuading new voters.

“Television is good for persuasion, and we’re starting to reach the point in the campaign where that’s really important,” said Travis Ridout, the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Trump still has an advantage with digital, but it’s not as big over the past month as it once was.”

Democrats argue that a healthy portion of the Trump campaign’s digital spending is focused on fundraising for his own campaign. Around 20 percent of the Trump campaign’s digital spending, depending on the time frame, has been concentrated in Texas, California and New York, where many donors live.

In the states that matter for the Electoral College — Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin — the two campaigns have been running about even in Facebook spending over the past month.

“Trump has been pouring money into a national fundraising campaign for years now while neglecting to try to really persuade or mobilize voters in battleground states,” said Josh Schwerin, a strategist for Priorities USA.

There are signs the Trump campaign’s vaunted online fundraising machine, powered by Facebook ads, may be faltering.

The Biden campaign routed the Trump campaign in fundraising in August, raking in about $150 million more. The Biden campaign’s $364 million haul includes $205 million from online donors, nearly matching the Trump campaign’s total donations for the month.

The Trump campaign, which once had a cash advantage in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will in all likelihood face a deficit down the stretch.

“Grassroots fundraising is a leading indicator of momentum in elections, and Biden blew Trump out of the water in August,” said Mike Nellis, the CEO of Authentic Campaigns and a former senior adviser to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). “Trump’s digital program is almost exclusively about communicating with his own people, and now it seems to be sputtering just as Biden’s program is taking off.”

The Trump campaign recently invested big money in pricey digital real estate outside of Facebook and Google, taking over YouTube over the course of eight days during the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions in August as it seeks to reach new voters.

“The Trump campaign maintains a heavy digital presence, as evidenced by our twin, unprecedented, four-day YouTube masthead takeovers — the best advertising real estate on the web,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “Our ad strategy is dynamic and ever-changing.”

One of the big questions in 2020 is whether Trump’s turn-out-the-base strategy will be enough for him after he won in 2016 by a total of 77,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Democrats are worried there might be a larger number of voters receptive to Trump’s Facebook messaging than they’re seeing in the polls.

But they say they don’t see any evidence of the Trump campaign seeking to expand its base of support through its digital advertising efforts.

A review of some of the Trump campaign’s most-viewed Facebook ads reveal that most are focused on fundraising and list-building among donors and potential donors who already support the president.

“I couldn’t say whether it’s possible for Trump to expand his base, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what he’s trying to do,” said Stephanie Grasmick, CEO of Rising Tide Interactive.

Republicans say not to dismiss the Trump campaign’s digital and television strategy.

In June 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign had $117 million in television reservations compared to zero for the Trump campaign.

That year, the Trump campaign ended up making strategic television ad buys in Wisconsin, where Clinton was not on the air. This time around, the Trump campaign has reserved $14 million in airtime in Minnesota, compared with $3 million for the Biden campaign.

On the digital front, Republicans say that even if the Trump campaign is mostly communicating with its own supporters, that long-running effort will pay dividends.

The Trump campaign has a strong sense of who it needs to turn out to vote and can use the data from its own supporters to identify a different universe of potential swing voters.

“It’s easy to discount and say they spent this much to raise this much, but that data is extremely valuable,” said Duncan.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu digital spending Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Mitch McConnell

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