Donald Trump has famously avoided most of the apparatus of a modern campaign in his run for the White House. Relying almost entirely on in-person rallies and media coverage, he's placed strikingly little emphasis on elements like field organizing, data analysis and TV advertising. Until recently, he'd barely even assembled what other presidential campaigns would recognize as a professional staff.
But in one area, Trump's campaign so far comes out on top: online ad spending. While Hillary Clinton has led in the single category of video impressions, Trump ran five online ads overall for every three of the Democrat’s in August alone, according to a tally by the Washington Post. Moreover, Trump recently announced that he would pour $40 million into digital advertising between now and Election Day, complementing a $100 million effort to catch up with his Democratic rival on TV.
Trump's main goal so far seems to be to support his successful small-dollar fundraising campaign, with the AOL network, The Drudge Report, Politico and Breitbart dominating his spending distribution. Clinton's ads look to be intended for a different purpose, concentrating on opinion-leader media like the New York Times, Washington Post and Politico, often appearing beside articles mentioning Trump.
Assuming Trump follows through, a last-minute, $40 million online ad blitz would seem to have GOTV as its goal and saturation as its means. In practice, he may not dominate the digital space as much as the numbers alone would indicate. He'll be buying ads when inventory's tight and they're at their most expensive, for one thing, and his persistent neglect of political data means that his targeting models could be inexact. On the other side of the race, Clinton's TV buys have benefited both from early inventory reservation and from the audience-targeting pioneered by the Obama 2012 campaign, and similar dynamics may be at play if she unveils a late digital push.
Still, this situation is almost the inverse of 2012, when President Obama bought online ads early and often, culminating in an October-November GOTV spike that may have equaled Mitt Romney's online ad presence throughout the whole campaign.
Assuming the numbers are correct, I'm honestly mystified by Clinton's relative Internet abstinence, particularly because several of the audiences she most needs to reach now, including Millennials and the college-educated, are eminently targetable through digital channels.
Her digital team is experienced and talented, and we can assume they've been advocating for a more aggressive digital outreach posture. My suspicion is that these resource-allocation decisions are being made at the top, perhaps by people who may not have entirely internalized the power of online outreach to connect with niche audiences.
Future candidates in a similar position could choose to invest in highly targeted Facebook, display and video ads, supplemented by search ads to reach late-deciders and people looking for their polling places.
Rounds of testing would help refine the messaging, messengers, formats and venues most likely to hit the mark. Combined with audience-targeted TV advertising and field outreach, a digital blitz could create the kind of message-repetition that boosts GOTV and last-minute persuasion. Negative messages aimed at the right people could also chip away at the opponent's support on the margins, suppressing just enough of the vote to be noticeable at the polls.
In Clinton's case, late negative advertising might be particularly useful because of the number of potential Trump voters on the fence. Her team could unite well-tested messaging with data-driven outreach to give groups like college-educated Republicans and working-class white women a nudge away from a Republican nominee whose perceived racism and misogyny gives them pause. Asking them to cast a ballot for Clinton may be a bridge too far, but they could be encouraged to vote with their feet by staying home on November 8th.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.