In Pennsylvania, former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign is pouring significantly more dollars into Facebook ads than President Donald Trump’s campaign leading up to Election Day.
Social media gave the Trump campaign a boost in 2016, when the President was an insurgent candidate with less money and less party support. This time around, the Biden campaign has a larger war chest and is outspending the incumbent in both digital and TV ads. Digital ads are much cheaper and more targeted than television ads, which tend to dominate the bulk of ad spending.
In the last 30 days, Biden for President and the Biden Victory Fund, both campaign arms, have spent a combined $5.51 million on Facebook ads in the commonwealth, Facebook’s Ad Library showed.
During the same period, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee spent $2.49 million, less than half as much. These four groups were the largest purchasers of Facebook ads in Pennsylvania during that time, by a significant margin.
Democrats have a financial advantage this time around and the benefit of hindsight, experts say.
“In 2016, Donald Trump totally outplayed Clinton on Facebook,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, with a focus on tech and democracy. Clinton’s campaign erred in using Facebook for fundraising but not seeing it as a space for recruitment and mobilization. “I think it’s just a matter of learning,” he said.
After 2016, Democrats did learn, and spend. In 2018, the party put millions into Facebook ads for congressional and senate races.
As the end of election season nears, the Biden campaign does not dominate online spending in every market. In Florida, the Trump campaign is spending nearly twice as much as the Democrats, according to the Online Political Ads Transparency Project out of New York University.
“The reality is the Trump campaign has to be a little bit more choosy” because his campaign isn’t as well-resourced, said Chris Borick, political scientist and Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. The president won Florida in 2016, and the state is key for his winning reelection.
While spending is relatively easy to track, what politicians are saying to potential voters is harder.
Researchers with the NYU project not only compile campaigns spending, but also collect examples of targeted ads by getting users to install a Chrome extension. As a result, they’re able to see things like the age, gender, location and interests of people seeing different ads. The power of Facebook is allowing marketers to finely tune messages based on a particular interest, such as health care or guns, and try to motivate potential voters by playing on those issues, said Vaidhyanathan.
The Biden campaign targeted people interested in “NPR, NPR Morning Edition and/or NPR’s Weekend Edition,” “Elizabeth Warren and/or Pete Buttigieg,” and “Baby Boomers,” among others, while the Trump campaign asked Facebook to show ads to “Ultimate Fighting Championship, Ben Shapiro, National Rifle Association, Cabela’s, Green Bay Packers and/or Duluth Trading Company” and “African American culture.”
The ads themselves tend to be simple or modular, with subtle variations. In October, the Trump campaign spent $168,487 targeting Pennsylvania Facebook users with ads focused on the Second Amendment. “Biden and Harris would enact UNCONSTITUTIONAL gun control measures while ANTIFA terrorizes our cities and the Radical Left calls to DEFUND the Police,” reads the text above different video clips.
During the same time, the Biden campaign spent just over $9,000 promoting early voting in the Keystone state with the message, “PENNSYLVANIA, you can vote TRUMP out today.”
Facebook has also taken down some Trump ads for being factually inaccurate.
As a result, the online ad space is “marginally a more constrained environment” than it was in 2016, said Borick.
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