By Nick Corasaniti and Quoctrung Bui
With just over two weeks left until the Iowa caucuses, Facebook ad data offers a lens into the primary strategies of the Democratic presidential candidates.
Since October, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — who has built his campaign around a potential victory in Iowa — has spent about a fifth of his overall Facebook budget in the state. Andrew Yang, a political newcomer, has spent more than 85% of his Facebook budget in Iowa and New Hampshire, a clear sign of how critical strong performances in those states are for him to be taken seriously in the elections and caucuses that follow.
While the three leading Democrats — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — spent a significant share of their Facebook budget in early states, they are taking a more national approach on Facebook than they are on other paid mediums, like television, in part to attract small dollar donors in a broader universe.
Over the past 90 days, the Democratic field has spent more than $31 million on Facebook ads, $6.4 million of that on ads in the first four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. In that time, President Donald Trump has spent about $7.5 million on Facebook ads, though a lot of his efforts are also focused on combating the impeachment narrative.
Though digital campaigning has been a part of presidential politics since 2008, it has taken on an especially central role in nearly every campaign in 2020. Last year, Trump and the top four Democrats spent more on digital advertising than on television advertising, according to data from Acronym, a progressive nonprofit group, and Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.
With the ability to target voters in a much more sophisticated way, generating direct responses or donations, Facebook has become the go-to platform for digital messaging.
“The ability to see exactly where campaigns are spending their money online, and with what messages they’re driving to which voters, gives us an unprecedented window into a campaign strategy,” said Tara McGowan, the founder of Acronym, which provided the Facebook ad data. “We can see exactly what voters campaigns are prioritizing and where they see their path to victory.”
While it’s likely that voters reached in a given state were geographically targeted by a political campaign, it is also possible that they overlapped with other target audiences in the same area. For example, if a campaign ran an ad to a custom list of its most dedicated supporters, and some of those people lived in Iowa, it could look as if Iowans were specifically targeted, when in fact the ad was meant for a different audience.
The Facebook data also shows how a candidate was able to break through debate qualification thresholds set by the Democratic National Committee. Tom Steyer, the self-funding billionaire with no political experience, has been ubiquitous on the early state airwaves, spending more than $51 million on television, which has helped him climb up the national and early state polling ladder, one of the debate criteria.
But the debate qualifications also require a significant amount of individual small-dollar donors, which a television ad can’t provide. So Steyer has blanketed Facebook with ads asking people to donate to his campaign, spending more than $10 million nationally since October. That effort appears to have paid off — he has qualified for the past four debates.
Similarly, Yang, who has spent on Facebook ads extensively in the first two states, had strong showings in early-state polling, earning him a spot even on the winnowed debate stage in December.
Perhaps even more important than the first four states are the 14 states with primaries on March 3 — Super Tuesday.
The Democratic candidates have spent nearly $12 million in those states, and six of them have spent at least 10% of their total Facebook ad budget in California — the biggest Super Tuesday prize.
Among them, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is self-funding his campaign, has poured more than half of his Facebook ad budget into Super Tuesday states, while barely spending anything in the first four states. He spent 17% in California alone.
His unorthodox campaign strategy is to skip the first four states and try to make a major splash in the Super Tuesday delegate scramble. The decision was made in part because he began his campaign much later than other candidates, and a target of Super Tuesday seemed more in reach, especially with his vast resources, rather than competing with established ground games in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Sanders has also had an outsize focus on California, spending 16% of his recent Facebook advertising on the state.
His Facebook strategy mirrors the rest of his campaign apparatus in California. He also has 80 staff members in the state — among the most of any candidate as of last month — and has held the most public events there.
This, McGowan notes, could be in part because California is home to a wide array of liberal activists and donors, and is among the most fertile grounds for campaigns like Sanders’ to build out lists and donor bases. That is often why campaigns advertise aggressively in California and New York, two very liberal states with huge populations.
While running TV ads in large cities like Los Angeles is almost prohibitively expensive if a candidate is simultaneously running a ground game in Iowa, Facebook offers a relatively low-cost alternative to begin to look beyond the early states.
“If you have to buy TV in a place like Los Angeles, you’re committing to a really expensive move, and it’s less targeted because it’s such a huge, diverse city,” said Kenneth Pennington, a founder of Middle Seat, a Democratic digital strategy group and the former digital director for Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “On Facebook, you’re hitting people that you know are in your persuasion or ‘Get Out the Vote’ audience, and you’re not having to pay for it being a big city.”
Throughout any campaign, Facebook ads allow campaigns to react much more quickly than they could on television, radio or direct mail.
Take again Sanders, and his effort in Nevada. In most polls, Sanders leads the field in appeal with Hispanic voters. Back in November, when he was trailing Buttigieg and Biden in Iowa polling, his campaign began spending more in Nevada, up to $19,000 per week in the two weeks before Thanksgiving. The ads were focused mostly on his “Medicare for All” plan, and included ads in Spanish.
Similarly, Steyer has focused increasingly on South Carolina as a state where he could make a surprisingly strong stand. At the beginning of December, Steyer’s Facebook ads made up a quarter of all political ads running in the state, but other candidates still had a noticeable presence, including Warren with 12%.
Midway through the month, Steyer more than tripled his Facebook ad spending, and by early January was spending $177,000 per week, or 80% of the overall money spent on Facebook in South Carolina. The television airwaves were similarly clogged by Steyer in South Carolina. A recent Fox News poll put Steyer at 15% in the state, a surprising result to some Democrats and good enough for second behind Biden.
“This election is the sea change that’s making digital the core component of a modern campaign,” McGowan said. “Campaigns now recognize the real power of digital advertising to not only grow their email lists and their support bases, but also their ability to drive event attendance and volunteer recruitment and really driving narrative in a competitive primary.”
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