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.
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Sixteen White House candidates including President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests 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 ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE, 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 SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout 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 ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) have all spent more than $4 million on digital ads. The Democratic race’s front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook 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 GillibrandWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Warren, Pressley introduce bill to make it a crime for police officers to deny medical care to people in custody Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE (D-N.Y.) spent about $750,000 on television before she ended her campaign last month. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what ‘policing’ means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight Minnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan says there will be consequences from fraying US-China relations; WHO walks back claims on asymptomatic spread of virus MORE (D-Md.) has spent about $350,000 on TV spots, according to Wesleyan’s data, narrowly ahead of Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE (D-Hawaii), who spent $333,000.
Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump 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.