Welcome to FWIW, ACRONYM’s weekly newsletter breaking down digital strategy in the 2020 elections. Each week, we look at how campaigns are – or aren’t – leveraging smart digital strategies to drive narratives and reach voters. For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.
When we launched this newsletter over two years ago (), the Trump campaign was spending millions of dollars online engaging their supporters, building their list, and raising money from grassroots donors – and they had virtually no counter on the left. Since then, we’ve lived through a historically competitive Democratic primary, an impeachment trial, and a global pandemic; and the online campaign landscape now looks dramatically different today.
It has been an honor and a privilege to put this newsletter together for this community every week for these past two years and we can’t wait to share what’s next for FWIW with you – after we survive (and win) this election.
Here we go.
BY THE NUMBERS
Heading into Election Day, the Trump campaign has spent more than team Biden in online advertising that we can track – around $262m to $187m respectively. Here’s the breakdown by platform, from the November 2018 midterms to now. Note, campaigns spend a ton of money on other digital platforms too, like OTT and programmatic, which are not included because the companies that own those platforms don’t make spending data public.
As early as October 2018, we were sounding the alarm about the Trump campaign’s overwhelming advantage on digital spending. They hadn’t stopped campaigning after 2016, and invested heavily in national fundraising and list building ads for years before Democrats could choose their nominee.
It’s no secret that throughout the primary, the Biden campaign did not lean as heavily on digital advertising as many of their opponents – but in their final push to clinch the nomination on Super Tuesday, their online spending spiked, and steadily increased ever since.
For both campaigns, we can see these spending spikes during key moments throughout the campaign. Biden’s biggest moments were:
His campaign launch in April 2019,
Super Tuesday in March,
Black Lives Matter protests in June, and
Kamala Harris’ announcement + the DNC convention in August.
Meanwhile, Trump’s spending was spiking before Biden even announced his candidacy. His biggest moments were:
both the impeachment announcement and later vote in the House.
But like we mentioned before, much of this spending was nationally targeted and focused on fundraising, so each campaign’s dollar amount spent only tells part of the story.
WHAT SWING-STATE VOTERS ACTUALLY SAW
The outcome of this election will come down to voters in nearly a dozen states from Arizona to Pennsylvania. For over a year, they’ve been targeted by the campaigns and outside groups with thousands of video ads, events, text messages, emails, and news articles aimed at winning them over and turning them out to vote.
Using Facebook’s transparency data, we can get the clearest picture of how each of the swing states has been targeted by Trump and Biden this year (Jan 1 – Oct 24):
The Biden campaign narrowly outspent Trump on Facebook in the critical battleground states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, while Trump maintained a spending edge among voters in the Sunbelt states.
That Democratic edge, however, is compounded when you factor in the enormous amount of outside group spending in “persuasion” advertising online this cycle. Just on Facebook, an unprecedented number of outside groups like Priorities USA, PACRONYM + ACRONYM, Republican Voters Against Trump, CAP Action, and so many more provided millions of dollars of swing-state air cover to Biden, pummeling Trump on everything from the economy and healthcare to coronavirus. In fact, an overlooked story in this election could be the absolute lack of pro-Trump outside spending online by Super PACs on the Right.
The below chart shows this major outside group spending on presidential campaign-related ads on Facebook (Jan 1 – Oct 24). Only two of the twelve largest outside spenders supported Trump.
The above constellation of groups spent through over 50 different Facebook pages, showing key voters everything from boosted news articles to memes, charts, polished video ads, and Republican testimonials on why Trump doesn’t deserve a second term. On top of that, this doesn’t include major progressive issue advertisers or the tens of millions of dollars groups have spent on swing-state U.S. Senate races.
BUT…THE HIDDEN CONSERVATIVE ADVANTAGE
While the data shows Trump has been overwhelmed by the Biden campaign and outside group’s paid online advertising this cycle, he still benefits from an enormous echo-chamber of right-wing outlets and digital media properties that exist to spout GOP talking points and misinform voters using organic social media.
We’ve been calling this out for a while now, but we cannot overstate the impact of sites like The Daily Wire, Breitbart, Federalist, and others disseminating information at scale to voters every day – often without spending a dime on advertising. The media is only recently beginning to pay more attention to the profound impact this has on our Democracy.
This summer, Kevin Roose of the New York Times began to highlight the most engaged posts on Facebook each week. No surprise, they’re consistently from far-right pages that have millions of followers and unparalleled reach.
Journalist Judd Legum recently uncovered how some of these actors game Facebook and break the platform’s rules without consequence. The Daily just featured a long segment on a new right-wing news operation that is rapidly expanding. And the New York Post’s bogus Hunter Biden story has been amplified for days by every right-wing outlet in the country, and to demonstrate that significance, search traffic for his name is at an all-time high.
If Trump pulls out a victory next week, it will be due in no small part to this distinct conservative advantage of organic Facebook engagement and owned content machines. Facebook and other platforms have shown reluctance to act on any of this, instead of focusing their regulatory efforts on paid advertising restrictions. Short of government regulation of the major platform companies, it seems like our campaign and political landscape online will shift further in this direction, with enormous implications for how campaigns are run.
That’s it for FWIW…for now! Now, it’s time to get out the vote. If you’ve already voted and still want to help, go to votesaveamerica.com to spend some time this weekend contacting voters in battleground states. If you haven’t voted yet, there’s still time – follow the link below to check your registration, make a plan to vote, and check with your peers to make sure that they have a plan too.