WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has spent far more than any single Democratic presidential candidate on Facebook advertising this year, reprising a strategy that was central to his 2016 victory.
The president spent particularly heavily on Facebook ads at the beginning of the year, when the number of Democratic candidates was smaller, and until late March his spending exceeded that of all of the Democratic candidates put together.The playing field has now shifted. Democrats’ collective spending surpassed Trump’s total, and now stands at about $9.6 million this year, compared with $4.9 million for the president. A large part of the surge has come from the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, who has pumped more than $1 million into Facebook ads since entering the race last month, outspending Trump for three of the past four weeks.
“For a long time, Trump was running an intensive campaign that no one was paying attention to,” said Mike Schneider, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic political and brand communications firm that is tracking Facebook spending by the presidential candidates.
“And while Democrats have picked up their efforts, they’re fighting over the same group of supporters while he’s broadly expanding his base,” Schneider said.
As Americans consume large amounts of information on social media platforms, Facebook has become a crucial method for reaching voters, and for securing the small donations that have become so important for campaigns. Running ads on Facebook is a valuable technique for candidates seeking to build their email list — a precious asset used for soliciting donations — while also delivering their message directly to voters.
The Trump campaign anticipates spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its online strategy for the 2020 election, according to officials familiar with the plans.
Campaign officials say that they will expand their efforts from 2016, when Facebook ads played an important role in Trump’s surprising victory, and that they will explore other online platforms where voters are consuming news as well. The campaign has found that voters it wants to target are also spending a significant amount of time getting information on YouTube, according to an official.
In interviews after the 2016 victory, Brad Parscale, who was the campaign’s digital director, described how the Trump campaign sought to make the most of Facebook to reach prospective supporters. Facebook ads make it possible to reach places “that you would never go with TV ads,” Parscale said in a 2017 interview on “60 Minutes.”
To maximize the effectiveness of its advertising, the Trump campaign used tens of thousands of different ad variations on any given day, said Parscale, who is now managing Trump’s re-election bid.
“Changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button,” he said. “Some people like the word ‘donate’ over ‘contribute.’”
Trump can pour millions into Facebook advertising because he has a big fundraising head start over even the best-funded Democratic candidates. He ended the first quarter of the year with about $41 million in cash on hand, far more than the leading Democratic fundraiser, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Facebook is now disclosing how much individual political campaigns are spending on advertising on Facebook and Instagram, offering an unusually clear view of how candidates are choosing to use their limited resources. The company maintains an online archive that displays the ads themselves, providing a look at the different messages that campaigns are using to appeal to voters.
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Much of Trump’s spending on Facebook advertising in recent weeks has gone toward ads that have been seen by older Americans, particularly women 55 and older, according to an analysis by Bully Pulpit.
Older voters are an important constituency for Trump, having favored him over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, according to exit polls. Trump also has reason to want to shore up his standing with women, as white women shifted leftward in the midterm elections.
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Many of the Trump campaign’s ads on Facebook are designed to get users to provide their contact information and expand the size of the campaign’s already enormous list of supporters. Others solicit donations or peddle Trump merchandise.
“Facebook ads are a really valuable source for building your email list, and the more emails you have on your list, the more money you’re going to raise online,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “There’s a direct through line to resources for the campaign.”
Recently, the Trump campaign has spent heavily on one subject in particular: the president’s birthday.
Trump turns 73 next month, and his campaign has run an assortment of ads asking people to sign a birthday card for him. The ads vary in their words and visuals. Some show a young man in a party hat being embraced by friends bearing gifts and balloons; others show a woman holding a birthday cake, candles ablaze. Still more just show Trump.
Curiously, many of the ads say, incorrectly, that he will be turning 72.
Other Trump ads have asked people to sign a birthday card for the first lady, Melania Trump, whose birthday was last month.
Over five weeks, Trump spent an estimated $450,000 on birthday ads on Facebook, accounting for slightly more than half his Facebook spending during that time, according to Bully Pulpit’s analysis.
The birthday ads serve a key purpose for the Trump campaign: collecting contact information for possible new supporters as well as existing ones. Asking people to sign a birthday card is a tried-and-true tactic, digital experts said.
“Digital list-building efforts like birthday cards are a great way to re-engage supporters, to refresh your email list and to grow a more personal relationship with your existing donor base,” said Michael Duncan, a Republican digital strategist who is a founding partner at Cavalry, a public affairs firm.
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Other Trump ads ask people to take an “Official Presidential Job Performance Survey” or a “Mainstream Media Accountability Survey” — and to provide their name, email address and ZIP code in the process.
“We try to harvest and bring people in to become direct contacts,” Parscale said on Fox News in January. “Cellphone numbers, email addresses, things that we can have direct contact.”
Parscale said he hoped to accumulate contact information for as many as 40 million, 50 million or 60 million people by the 2020 election. “We might possibly have everybody that could vote for the president in a direct contact method by Election Day,” he said.
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Some Trump ads on Facebook have invoked themes like immigration, socialism and the supposed “witch hunt” against Trump — all topics that the president has been fond of talking about and is likely to continue discussing as he seeks a second term. He has also run ads highlighting last year’s criminal justice overhaul, as well as Spanish-language ads about Venezuela.
“You can really see the start of their general election campaign strategy and platform when you look through these ads over the past number of months,” said Tara McGowan, a Democratic digital strategist who is the founder and chief executive of Acronym, a progressive digital organization that has also been tracking Facebook spending by the candidates.
Some immigration ads ask people to vote on whether Trump should close the border. Others ask people to take an “Official Secure The Border Survey,” whose questions include, “Do you think Democrats care about your safety?”
Over a two-week stretch in late March and early April, roughly three-quarters of Trump’s spending on Facebook advertising was for immigration-related ads, according to the analysis from Bully Pulpit.
“A lot of this,” Schneider said, “is Trump supporter red meat.”
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