Even seemingly ominous developments for Trump become fodder for his campaign. When news broke last month that congressional Democrats were opening an impeachment inquiry, the campaign responded with an advertising blitz aimed at firing up the president’s base.
The campaign slapped together an “Impeachment Poll” (sample question: “Do you agree that President Trump has done nothing wrong?”). It invited supporters to join the Official Impeachment Defense Task Force (“All you need to do is DONATE NOW!”). It produced a slick video laying out the debunked conspiracy theory about former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine that is now at the center of the impeachment battle (“Learn the truth. Watch Now!”).
The onslaught overwhelmed the limited Democratic response. Biden’s campaign put up the stiffest resistance: It demanded Facebook take down the ad, only to be rebuffed. It then proceeded with plans to slash its online advertising budget in favor of more television ads.
That campaigns are now being fought largely online is hardly a revelation, yet only one political party seems to have gotten the message. While the Trump campaign has put its digital operation firmly at the center of the president’s reelection effort, Democrats are struggling to internalize the lessons of the 2016 race and adapt to a political landscape shaped by social media.
Trump’s first campaign took far better advantage of Facebook and other platforms that reward narrowly targeted — and, arguably, nastier — messages. And while the president is now embattled on multiple fronts and disfavored by a majority of Americans in most polls, he has one big advantage: His 2020 campaign, flush with cash, is poised to dominate online again, according to experts.
The Trump team has spent the past three years building out its web operation. The 2016 digital director, Brad Parscale, is now leading the entire campaign.
The campaign under Parscale is focused on pushing its product — Trump — by churning out targeted ads, aggressively testing the content and collecting data to further refine its messages. It is selling hats, shirts and other gear, a strategy that yields yet more data, along with cash and, of course, walking campaign billboards.
The Democrats are largely running what other experts and political operatives compared to brand loyalty campaigns, trying to sway moderates and offend as few people as possible, despite mounting research that suggests persuasion ads have little to no effect on voters in a general election.
The candidates are collectively spending more on Facebook and Google than on television and are trying to target their ads. But without the same level of message testing and data collection, Democrats’ efforts are not nearly as robust as Trump’s.
Democratic digital operatives said the problem is a party dominated by an aging professional political class that is too timid. The Biden campaign’s decision to tack from digital to television, they said, is only the most glaring example of a party hung up on the kind of broad-based advertising that fares poorly on social media.
Digital consultants and campaign officials complained that the Democratic establishment was too focused on winning over imagined moderates instead of doing what the Trump campaign has done: firing up its base.
Facebook Favors the Angry
Far more than any other platform, Facebook is the focus for digital campaign spending, and it is in many ways even friendlier turf for Trump’s campaign than in 2016.
Since then, many younger, more liberal users have abandoned the platform in favor of Instagram, Snapchat and various private messaging apps, while older users — the type most likely to vote Republican — are still flocking to Facebook in droves. People over 65 now make up Facebook’s fastest-growing population in the United States, doubling their use of the platform since 2011, according to Gallup.
In a speech this year in Romania, Parscale recalled telling his team before the 2016 election that Facebook would allow the campaign to reach the “lost, forgotten people of America.”
“Millions of Americans, older people, are on the internet, watching pictures of their kids because they all moved to cities,” Parscale said. “If we can connect to them, we can change this election.”
Facebook also favors the kind of emotionally charged content that Trump’s campaign has proved adept at creating. Often, the more incendiary the campaign, the further its dollars go.
Provocative ads also get shared more often, creating an organic boost.
“There’s an algorithmic bias that inherently benefits hate and negativity and anger,” said Shomik Dutta, a digital strategist and a founder of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for Democratic startups. “If anger has an algorithmic bias, then Donald Trump is the captain of that ship.”
A Facebook spokeswoman disputed the notion that ads got more visibility just because they were negative, and noted that users were able to flag offending ads for possible removal.
The company, since the 2016 election, has invested heavily to prevent Russian-style interference campaigns. It has built up its security and fact-checking teams, staffed a “war room” during key elections and changed its rules to crack down on misinformation and false news.
But it has left a critical loophole: Facebook’s fact-checking rules do not apply to political ads, letting candidates spread false or misleading claims. That has allowed Trump’s campaign to show ads that traditional TV networks have declined to air.
One recent video from the Trump campaign said that Biden had offered Ukraine $1 billion in aid if it killed an investigation into a company tied to his son. The video’s claims had already been debunked, and CNN refused to play it. But Facebook rejected the Biden campaign’s demand to take the ad down, arguing that it did not violate its policies.
At last count, the video has been viewed more than 5 million times.
The 2016 Playbook
In the wake of the 2016 election, some on the left sought an explanation for Trump’s victory within the idea that his campaign had used shadowy digital techniques created by the defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. However, there is a far less nefarious explanation: The Trump campaign simply made better use of standard commercial marketing tools.
An internal Facebook report written after the 2016 election noted that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns spent heavily on Facebook — $44 million for Trump versus $28 million for Hillary Clinton. “But Trump’s FB campaigns were more complex,” the memo said, and were better at using Facebook to bring in donations and find new voters. For instance, roughly 84% of Trump ads focused on getting voters to take an action, such as donating, the report said. Only about half of Clinton’s did.
At the same time, the Trump campaign sought to tailor its ads more precisely to specific voters, the report said, with a typical Trump message targeted at 2.5 million people, compared with 8 million for the Clinton campaign. And the Trump team simply made more unique ads — 5.9 million versus 66,000.
The Republicans’ 2020 operation — with more than $150 million in cash on hand, according to the latest filings — appears to have picked up where it left off.
Perhaps most important, the Trump campaign is spending to make sure people see its content. In the week the impeachment inquiry was announced, the campaign spent nearly $2.3 million on Facebook and Google ads, according to data compiled by Acronym, a progressive digital strategy organization that tracks campaign spending. That is roughly four to five times what it spent on those platforms in previous weeks, and about half what most Democratic front-runners have spent on Facebook and Google advertising over the entire course of their campaigns.
The president’s team has also invested heavily in YouTube, buying ads and counterprogramming his opponents. In June, during the first Democratic primary debates, the Trump campaign bought the YouTube “masthead” — a large ad that runs at the top of the site’s homepage and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per day — to ensure that debate viewers would see it.
This article originally appeared in