As impeachment proceedings begin in haste in Congress, Democrats find themselves at a severe financial disadvantage when it comes to swaying public opinion online and on the airwaves.
On Tuesday, the group Need to Impeach, which is funded mainly by billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, announced that it would be launching a $3.1 million ad campaign targeting Republican senators, according to The Washington Post.
But that investment falls well short of the $10 million that Donald Trump and like-minded allies are preparing to spend on a digital and television ad blitz of their own. And within the party there is growing frustration that Steyer’s time, efforts and resources would be better spent further bankrolling the pro-impeachment project he started years ago than in a long-shot presidential campaign that many view as a vanity project.
“It just shows he doesn’t believe in anything other than trying to buy the presidency,” said Adam Jentleson, public affairs director at Democracy Forward and a pro-impeachment advocate.
While Need to Impeach is now jumping into the impeachment ad wars, it is already playing catch-up. The group spent just $5,309 on Facebook ads this past week, according to the social media site’s online database. By contrast, Steyer’s presidential campaign has spent $382,783 during that time frame. Both Trump and the RNC spent more than $2.1 million on Facebook ads during that same time period, about a quarter of which was devoted to hitting the impeachment issue.
Alberto Lammers, Steyer’s campaign spokesman, scoffed at criticism that Steyer wasn’t doing enough, saying that the current landscape around impeachment actually vindicated his boss’ decision to enter the presidential race.
“He is partially responsible for getting the House there before this whole thing broke,” he said, noting that Need to Impeach had more than 8.3 million members on its email list. “He started Need to Impeach against the wishes of the leaders of the Democratic Party because he knew it was the right thing to do and now it is all coming to fruition. And the things he has done with impeachment he can do elsewhere: getting the corporate corruption out of politics and acting on climate change and health care immediately.”
But the ad spending disparities has prompted renewed criticisms within some corners of the party about the merits and value of Steyer’s presidential bid and it has led to more dire warnings that Dems may fumble a historically significant moment.
“The inequality in online ad spending between Trump allies and Dems is a potential crisis,” warned Zac Petkanas, a party strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Steyer’s presidential campaign advertising has not been entirely without a pro-impeachment push. Indeed, the issue has been featured in some of his spots, including a recent television ad his campaign aired on Fox & Friends. And a campaign spokesman said that they are currently readying a new digital and television ad on impeachment that will be unveiled over the coming days.
But the main focus of the campaign’s ad blitz remains on bolstering his long-shot presidential effort. Of the 65 ads he is currently running on Facebook, 49 focus on items other than impeachment, and many of the spots he has run on television have been geared towards early state voters and not a national audience writ large. The ad that they are set to launch, for example, will be shown only in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Compared to other entities, however, Steyer’s network of organizations is actually making robust investments in the pro-impeachment ad campaigns. Almost all of the online ad spending being placed by presidential campaigns is on their own election efforts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), has emphasized that she was one of the first presidential candidates to call for impeachment. But of the hundreds of current ads she is running on Facebook, just 16 are devoted to that topic, according to an analysis of Facebook’s database.
And Priorities USA, the Democratic Party’s top super PAC, said it has no plans to adjust its current 2020 ad campaign strategy in response to the launch of impeachment proceedings and the Trump campaign’s investments.
“Rather than respond to this gambit,” the PAC’s president Guy Cecil said, “Priorities USA will continue to commit our resources to our $100 million program holding Trump accountable in key states for his record on health care, wages and the kitchen table issues that Americans struggle with on a daily basis.”
Within this vacuum, the effort to sway voters on the impeachment question has fallen largely to the Democratic Party. But even there, expenditures have been paltry compared to the sums dropped by Trump’s political apparatus. The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors Association have led the party’s Facebook ad strategy on the impeachment issue. According to Bully Pulpit data, they spent less than $16,000 on Facebook ads relating to impeachment last week.
A DNC official noted that, in addition to Facebook, their impeachment ads were appearing on “Google, and Twitter’s in-platform audiences of users who have displayed interest in Democratic politics and progressive allies, as well as lookalike audiences made from matched lists of various DNC donor segments.” The official also noted that the ads had “contributed to September being our best month of email acquisition of the year.”
That Democrats find themselves being outgunned on the ad wars right as impeachment is picking up steam on the Hill is, in part, the byproduct of strategic decisions made weeks ago. Kevin Mack, the lead strategist on Need to Impeach noted that over the summer, the group shifted its focus from ad spending to grassroots organizing as it reconsidered whether it made sense to continue to target specific House Democrats. Mack conceded that the group’s $3.1 million TV ad expenditure wouldn’t even the scales with what Trump and his allies are already spending. But, he argued, Democrats didn’t necessarily need to be on the same level.
“The reason Trump is now advertising is because they are losing. They are responding to us. Let’s not lose site of that. They are on the defensive. His presidential campaign is now spending money to defend him on impeachment,” said Mack. “He has to spend money to change the narrative. This is his campaign overreacting and in a bit of a panic.”
One top Democratic operative echoed these views, noting that the actual revelations emerging from Capital Hill and the news media—which have raised almost universally bad questions for the president—made the difference in ad spending less critical. But others in the party worry that at a time when the president was on his heels, the absence of a full-throated ad push would prove illogical and, frankly, dumb in retrospect.
“The president and his allies are running a massive campaign to try and muddy the waters on this impeachment fight,” said Petkanas. “Currently, Democrats are able to play offense but as the weeks drag on it is going to become very hard to maintain the level of message discipline that currently is being employed by the pro-impeachment forces. It is going to be extremely important for a paid communication element of this that begins with an online buy commensurate with the president’s enormous spending.”