President Donald Trump and his allies have spent more than $33 million on Facebook and Google ads in the last year and a half — more than four times his television spending — as his aides race to build massive lists of supporters and donors ahead of the 2020 general election.
The onslaught by the President’s campaign and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee — a joint fundraising operation between his re-election effort and the national Republican Party — exceeds what the top four Democratic candidates combined have spent on those platforms so far, and underscores his digital dominance a year before Election Day.
The Trump spending spree has set off alarms among Democratic strategists. This week, liberal political action committee PACRONYM announced a $75 million digital campaign to counter the Trump campaign.
“Last minute multi-million-dollar ad buys won’t be enough any longer,” David Plouffe, who managed President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and serves on Acronym’s board, said in a statement. “This election is already being fought and it’s being fought online. There will be no magic message, ad, or candidate. We are going to have to grind out this victory the hard way, and it will take time to learn how to build the most effective case to the right voters. This is a DEFCON 1 situation.”
The group’s initial spending will focus on key battleground states, including Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
In an interview on Fox News, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said of their digital strategy, “I think we’re further ahead than anything that’s ever existed.”
He added, “I think [Democrats] are a little freaked out. I’m not nervous … Do I think they have a heck of hard time in front of them? I’m going to make it as hard as possible.”
The Trump campaign did not immediately return a request for comment from CNN.
Trump’s digital spending
Since May 2018 — when Facebook and Google began releasing advertising data — the Trump campaign and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee have spent more than $33 million across the two platforms. By comparison, the Trump campaign has spent more than $7.5 million on traditional TV advertising during that period, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG.
The digital ads focus heavily on list-building and fundraising.
“The difference between [Obama’s] first election and his reelection — he grew his list by about 50, 55%. We’re going to grow ours about 300%. You know, maybe even 400%. We’re already at 150% growth with our list size,” Parscale told Fox.
The Trump campaign and its allies have so far directed their digital advertising at big states and red states with large potential donor bases. Since April, the four largest states by population — Texas, Florida, California and New York — have accounted for nearly a third of the Facebook spending by the Trump campaign and Trump Make America Great Again Committee, according to an ad tracking tool developed by BullyPulpit, a Democratic digital firm.
One Facebook ad launched by the Trump campaign on November 5 urges viewers to “show your support for Team Trump by purchasing Official 2020 merchandise from the Official Trump Store!”
Another ad launched this month reads, “Winning in 2020 is going to take EVERY SINGLE grassroots conservative stepping up to do their part.”
In October, the campaign ran a series of ads asking viewers to “TAKE THE OFFICIAL APPROVAL POLL!” And on Google, the campaign ran search ads that read, “Democrats Will Continue To Lie Until They Can IMPEACH The Greatest President Ever. President Trump Needs Your Help. Show Your Support and Donate Now!”
The Trump Make America Great Again Committee uses similar messaging tactics. One ad launched this month reads, “Since you’ve played such a critical role in all of our success, I wanted to give you the chance to mark your calendars for any upcoming rallies in your area. Sign Up for the Official Rally RSVP List to make sure you’ll know exactly when I’ll be visiting your city!”
Another list-building effort, keyed to impeachment, reads, “Add you name to the list to stand with President Trump against the CORRUPT liberals pushing for impeachment!”
Surveys, contests, event RSVPs and merchandise sales like these are means by which campaigns can accrue individual-level data for organizing, list-building and fundraising drives — springboards to more traditional campaign efforts on the ground and on television.
Complicating the messaging onslaught: Facebook appears committed to its controversial policy that allows politicians to run false ads — including digital versions of some TV ads from the Trump campaign that falsely accusse Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, of corruption related to the former vice president’s role in Ukraine policy during the Obama administration. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Trump’s TV spending
Even with a fractured Democratic primary field, and a year until the 2020 election, the Trump campaign is already in attack mode on television. The campaign has aired more than $7 million worth of TV ads in just 2019 so far, according to data from CMAG, with more than $4 million on TV ads defending the President and criticizing the impeachment inquiry, including $1.8 million behind the spots aimed at Biden.
Unlike its digital advertising, the Trump campaign’s TV advertising is largely keyed toward potential 2020 battlegrounds and early primary states. Outside of national broadcast — which accounts for just under half of the Trump campaign’s total TV spend — the campaign has spent the most on TV advertising in 2019 in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Despite the early spending, Trump’s political coalition has stockpiled plenty of resources to maintain its advertising dominance. The Trump campaign ended September with more than $83 million in cash on hand, while the Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Trump Victory — another joint fundraising committee between the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee — had more than $15 million combined in the bank.