The fallout from the pandemic has made the 2020 election cycle one of the least traditional in modern history, placing an outsize importance on digital advertising. With the absence of a traditional campaign structure, President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE face a challenge of a digital advertising war in lieu of a basic strategy.
Trump, whose campaign has raised nearly double the cash of Biden, has already outspent the former vice president on advertising by a margin of three to one since Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, according to Advertising Analytics. The finances of the Biden campaign have been less substantial, although advertising in his favor has ramped up with recent support from super political action committees.
Both sides are working to frame different narratives of the crisis through their digital advertising. The Trump campaign has focused on achieving two goals. The first one is making the case that his handling of the crisis resulted in millions of lives getting saved, and the second one is that his leadership is initiating a comeback that will result in a robust rest of the year and a comeback in the economy. Conversely, the Biden campaign has focused on framing the election as a referendum on Trump.
How the competing strategies play out will determine the 2020 election. The Trump campaign seeks to make its case in a digital ad with selective use of audio visuals that touts the coronavirus response of the president, saying it saved two million lives. It also notes that he is leading a historic comeback. It is unclear whether this narrative resonates, with Americans disapproving of his coronavirus response by 12 points, according to new data from Reuters. The comeback argument may be effective if, as Larry Kudlow has predicted, the economy bounces back this summer.
Further, the economy is an area of weakness for Biden, who trails Trump on who voters trust to handle it. To counter the comeback argument, the Biden campaign is running digital attack ads across battleground states on the failed leadership of Trump on the coronavirus, saying it cratered the economy and also resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.
Two ads blame the severity of the public health crisis and downturn in the economy on Trump because of his early inaction, depicting him as frozen when the coronavirus struck. In an effort to level the political playing field, the Trump campaign set out a digital ad blitz hitting Biden on some issues where the president is also vulnerable, including our relations with China. Its lack of transparency and failure to control the outbreak has resulted in broad public sentiment against China here in the United States.
While this could certainly backfire, it might neutralize some vulnerabilities of the president. This negative strategy is rather similar to what the Trump campaign ran in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a recent ad says that Biden defends China and features the former vice president criticizing the travel ban as “hysterical xenophobia.” The ad of course does not show that Trump also praised China and lauded President Xi Jinping on his handling of the outbreak. The Biden campaign attacks Trump for his failures on this key diplomatic issue in a recent ad that features a narrator saying that the president “rolled over for the Chinese” and just “took their word.”
Ultimately, with digital advertising taking on considerable importance in politics this year, the 2020 election will hinge on whether voters believe the Biden campaign narrative that Trump failed as president against the pandemic and the country is now worse off, or whether they believe the Trump campaign narrative that the president mitigated the coronavirus and his leadership is starting a great comeback in the economy.
Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest book is “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”