As President Donald Trump hammers home the perils of immigrants flooding the southern border, his message is going nearly unanswered by Democrats online.
Democratic entities with a stake in the 2020 election are significantly lagging behind Trump’s immigration messaging on digital platforms like Facebook and Google, according to data from the Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic political and communications firm.
“Democrats are locked in a race to the left, battling over their base, focused on making it to the debate stage,” Ben Coffey Clark, the group’s founding partner, told The Daily Beast. “Trump is able to look further ahead and start running a general election campaign, targeting battlegrounds with his vision for top issues like immigration and the economy.”
Nearly every candidate’s stump speech contains a pro-immigrant nod and a shot at Trump’s zero tolerance policies. But as contenders compete for the nomination in 2020, Democratic circles have raised concerns that their own party is sinking behind the president on a top election issue.
“All around, it’s bad news,” Jess Morales Rocketto, executive director of the non-profit organization Care in Action, said. “The party of pro-immigration not saying anything about immigration when it’s their opponent’s No. 1 issue is incredibly perplexing.”
Morales Rocketto said candidates would be wise to target the issue now for a leg-up in the primary calendar. She pointed to Nevada, an early-voting state populated heavily with Latino immigrants, as playing an increasingly significant role. And she said it will only help for the general election.
Trump has already started investing his advertising dollars to frame the 2020 debate around immigration. And so far, no one on the left is countering his narrative.
“It’s definitely a missed opportunity,” an official at NextGen America, the progressive youth group founded by mega-donor Tom Steyer, said. “Democrats are constantly playing defense on the messaging.”
An analysis of BPI data from March 30 to May 18 shows heavy spending from Trump on immigration-related Facebook ads, with a significant lag among his Democratic rivals.
“Democratic candidates have hardly invested in the issue online,” Coffey Clark said.
During those 50 days, Trump spent $231,061 on immigration ads on Facebook—more than seven times the amount five top-tier Democratic contenders invested in total. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) spent $15,793, while Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spent $11,006 and $4,830, respectively, according to BPI’s data. Former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg did not spend any money on immigration ads on the platform during that time.
But it’s not just candidates with early fundraising decisions causing some immigration advocates worry. Major Democratic groups like Priorities USA and the Democratic National Committee have not prioritized Facebook spending on immigration, suggesting a disconnect between the party’s rhetoric and investment.
“It suggests a lack of understanding of what this general election is going to be like,” Morales Rocketto said.
The data indicates that Trump’s campaign is not just thinking longer-term, but attempting to be strategic: His campaign is allocating Facebook ad money to states where he believes he will broadly appeal to voters, including independents. But a recent CBS News poll indicates his handling of the topic only rallies his base. When asked about Trump’s handling of immigration, 60 percent of voters polled said they disapprove. In contrast, 80 percent of Republicans approved.
To date, he is investing heavily in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, critical 2020 battlegrounds, as well as former Republican strongholds like Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina, which have trended blue in more recent elections.
But while Trump’s team is playing the long game, some in the Democratic Party are not convinced it’s an issue that could swing the election in his favor.
Priorities USA, the leading Democratic super PAC, is spending more heavily for ads on “kitchen table issues” like health care and the economy, a senior official in the group said.
The group’s stated agenda is to “persuade and mobilize citizens around the issues and elections that affect their lives.” But their projected spending, according to the senior official, suggests immigration will not be a top digital advertising priority.
“We focus our ads on the issues that are most likely going to swing an election,” the senior official said.
Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration reform group America’s Voice, can see the merits of that strategy, arguing it’s too early to start reaching general election voters on immigration now.
“Democrats are prosecuting a multi-candidate primary,” Sharry said. “There’s not much division among Democratic voters on immigration.”
An official at the Democratic National Committee said that immigration reform was a part of the group’s party platform in 2016 and noted it intends to promote the issue across digital platforms in 2020. But the timing and specific topics have not been decided.
“We recently moved our ad buying strategy in house and plan to buy ads highlighting a host of important issues,” the DNC official said. “Immigration will certainly be included.