With just over a month to go until election day, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has quietly ramped up its digital advertising, bringing it roughly on par with a behemoth Trump digital ad operation that was central to the president’s 2016 victory.
Data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that in total the Biden campaign and its joint fundraising committee, the Biden Victory Fund, spent more on Facebook and Google ads than the Trump campaign and its Trump Make America Great Again Committee in both of the two weeks ending Sept. 20, the latest period for which CRP has complete data. In that final week, the more than $12.3 million that the Biden camp spent on ads on the two platforms nearly doubled the Trump team’s total spend, the largest lead in weekly advertising spending on those platforms that Biden has posted to date, according to CRP data.
All told, the numbers suggest that one of the main ingredients of Trump’s 2016 campaign’s success may not be so effective for him four years later. And, if anything, money is to blame.
The Biden campaign’s massive recent fundraising hauls are starting to show up in its digital spending operation. The campaign is already dwarfing Trump’s in television ad spending. But digital advertising is an area where Trump has traditionally been dominant, and where pundits were just recently writing off the Biden campaign entirely—chastising it as a relic of past politics with little appetite for, or understanding of, the digital world.
The data suggests that Biden’s team is now making the type of investments that Democratic operatives had hoped for. And though there are different metrics for measuring a campaign’s full digital footprint, CRP’s formula is fairly comprehensive. The site’s numbers encompass both official Facebook pages for Joe Biden and Donald Trump, their running-mates (and, in Trump’s case, a handful of senior campaign aides), as well as the array of pages the campaigns have set up to court various voter demographics, key states, and issue-centric constituencies.
Throughout most of the 2020 cycle, Biden had lagged Trump in digital ad spending, particularly on Facebook, which has been a key platform for Trump campaign efforts in both 2016 and 2020 to fundraise and reach voters outside of traditional media channels. Biden has occasionally overtaken Trump in weekly ad spending on Google and Facebook, CRP data shows, but most of its spikes have coincided with major campaign events on which the Biden team has sought to capitalize, such as his sweeping Super Tuesday victories in March, or his clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination in June.
But the Biden campaign has stepped up its spending of late. On Google, in particular, the Biden campaign’s spending topped the Trump campaign’s by more than $4.1 million during the first three weeks of September, according to CRP data. On Facebook, a huge spike in Trump campaign spending that coincided with the Republican convention late last month has mostly petered out, and in the week ending Sept. 20, Biden’s campaign dropped $1.4 million more on ads on the platform than Trump’s did.
Even that total understates the trend, as it includes one day, Sept. 11, when the Biden campaign largely paused its advertising operation. Facebook ad buy data shows that the Biden campaign spent just $13,500 on the platform that day, down from $1 million a day earlier. On Sept. 12, the total was back up to $441,000.
It’s hard to overstate Facebook’s importance to Trump’s political operation, historically. In 2016, the platform was central to the campaign’s strategy, and ate up a huge portion of its advertising budget. “Facebook was the 500-pound gorilla, 80 percent of the budget kind of thing,” Brad Parscale, who ran the campaign’s digital operation in 2016 and is a senior aide on the re-elect, told 60 Minutes in 2017.
While Biden has managed to close the Facebook gap, he’s also devoted more funds to less prominent platforms that also provide significant reach. Since January, the Biden campaign has dropped more than $800,000 on ads on the platform Snapchat, nearly 10 times the $85,000 spent by the Trump campaign, according to Snapchat political ad data. The sums are far smaller, but that Snapchat data shows that those Biden ads were viewed a staggering 146 million times.
The leveling out of the two campaigns’ online ad spending likely reflects the substantial changes in their relative financial positions. As Biden has raked in record funds of late, the Trump campaign has found itself in an unexpected cash crunch and lagging Biden in banked funds that it can put to work during the final weeks of the campaign.
One Democratic digital operative who reviewed Trump’s campaign ads on Facebook said the campaign’s strategy appears to be geared towards closing that gap. “When I look at their ad strategy it is pretty haphazard and not coordinated and it is primarily being used to raising money because they don’t have any,” the strategist said. “To me, it’s still clear that they are still in a transition mode from [Brad] Parscale to [Bill] Stepien. Because by this point you would be clearly in a persuasion mode, you’d even be in mobilization with the early vote going on. And I think they’re still just trying to raise money.”
But if digital ad spending is a fundraising tactic, it is also itself a telling indicator of each campaign’s current fundraising capacity. Facebook ads are not just purchased to persuade voters. They’re also, most often, purchased to raise cash. A candidate will likely spend more and more on them if they bring back equal—or more—money in donations. Trump was believed to have a much more sophisticated and impressive grassroots fundraising apparatus than Biden. But the amount of money that Biden is now spending on digital ads—combined with the fundraising reports he and Trump have filed—suggests that the script has been flipped.
Biden’s digital fundraising has also likely benefited from the structural makeup of his campaign. Unlike Trump, his campaign has not prioritized in-person voter contacts such as traditional canvassing and door-knocking. While Biden’s campaign committee itself paid more than three times as much as the Trump campaign in staff payroll in August, the Biden campaign’s focus on using digital tools to reach voters means its advertising spending on top digital platforms will likely continue to rise as election day approaches.
-- with reporting by Sam Stein