Donald Trump is gunning for the Democrats on Facebook. Until just a few weeks ago, the president's reelection campaign had invested more in advertising on the platform than his 20-plus potential Democratic opponents combined. A burst of May spending may put Joe Biden temporarily in the lead day-to-day, but Trump is still far ahead cumulatively.
Of course, Trump's 2016 presidential campaign employed data-targeted Facebook advertising to raise money and mobilize voters on a vast scale, in just the few months between his nomination and Election Day. Brad Parscale ran Trump's digital outreach then, now he's in charge of the entire reelection effort. Naturally, his team is pouring money into Facebook advertising, but this time with more than a year to gather names, data, and donations.
Trump’s not just out-spending the Democrats running for president: he seems to be out-messaging them. Besides the list-building ads you’d expect at this stage of a presidential campaign, Parscale has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on issue-focused ads designed to put Trump’s message in front of both supporters and potentially persuadable voters in swing states.
The campaign’s sponsored content has emphasized immigration and has largely targeted older Facebook users, suggesting a desire both to reinforce the “base” and to identify voters who might be candidates for conversion.
Parscale is playing a long game here: people who click on a Facebook post incorporating the president’s immigration messaging have functionally self-identified as being sympathetic and perhaps persuadable. Because of Facebook’s engagement-targeting features, Trump’s team can reach them again and again with content designed to move their minds.
Parscale has specifically mentioned the power of Facebook’s “lookalike” targeting to reach new supporters, and we can assume that each Trump ad yields data that helps the campaign find and recruit new people to the MAGA movement.
The Democrats running for president have pursued a course more common: they’ve focused on building nationwide small-dollar donor lists and connecting with volunteers and organizers in early-primary states. These decisions are perfectly understandable, particularly for candidates who’ve jumped in with more press attention than infrastructure in place. But this strategy risks ceding digital persuasion to Trump and the Republicans until the nomination is confirmed—more than a year from now.
Democrats have dominated digital organizing and data-enabled field campaigning since the days of Howard Dean and President Obama. But Republicans recently have consistently invested more in digital advertising, for instance outspending Democratic congressional candidates 40 to 1 in the first half of 2016. That ratio shrank to a “mere” 4 to 1 in the campaign’s homestretch.
Trump is now apparently planning to use targeted digital ads to pick off people from the edges of the Democratic coalition, including black and Latino voters. Those particular ads may not be running yet, and Democrats may mock some of Trump’s over-the-top content (who knew we needed a wall on South Padre Island?). But he’s investing early in putting messages in front of people who might just change their minds based on what they see, and for the most part, Democrats aren’t.
When I’ve asked about this kind of large-scale, sustained persuasion outreach on the left, I’ve often heard that the party hasn’t been set up that way. Campaigns are independent and individual efforts, while the DNC and the state parties (where they’re reasonable functional) raise money and build capacity.
Some of the big independent expenditure groups will likely invest in persuasion closer to the election, but if Democrats want to reach out to wavering Trump voters in a sustained way, they’ll need to drop serious cash on targeted digital and field organizing – and for years, not weeks before an election.
One good sign? The DNC has apparently moved the bulk of its digital advertising in-house, no longer relying on consultants to create and place ads. Perhaps the national party will be able to at least experiment with long-term persuasion ads designed to chip away at Trump’s coalition, a group whose political life will almost certainly outlast his stay in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Could Trump Facebook his way to a second term in the White House? Maybe: demographic change alone may doom his reelection, along with the kind of Democratic enthusiasm that captured the House last November. I’ll say this, though: he’s building a campaign determined to mobilize his base in big numbers and to add to their ranks via targeted digital outreach. Democrats, take heed.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2019 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-two-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.