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Trump's 2016 online advantages persist and grow ahead of 2020

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The same media trends that led to President Trump's unexpected victory in 2016 are growing even stronger leading up to 2020.

Why it matters: Even amid a historic impeachment process, these patterns suggest Trump could have a significant media advantage over Democrats leading up to 2020 — though there's no guarantee that the end result will be the same.

1. Democrats haven't made a digital comeback, despite vowing to match the digital sophistication of Republicans after 2016.

  • As Axios has been reporting since March, the Trump campaign continues to outspend all of its Democratic challengers combined on digital advertising.
  • This is in part because large progressive groups haven't come together to leverage their spending power on big platforms to create efficiencies, progressive digital experts tell Axios.

2. Some aspects of the Democratic Party are still entrenched in a legacy media culture. There's long been a complaint among progressive activists that Democrats' heavy reliance on outside consultants who are biased towards television and traditional media weakens the incentives for candidates to invest as much in digital.

  • In addition, nearly every Democratic campaign has brought ad-buying in-house this cycle, and the party doesn't have a pipeline of talent to support sophisticated advertising strategies across so many campaigns.
  • Tim Lim, partner at NEWCO and a Democratic digital strategist, said Democrats are at a disadvantage because they haven't made advanced training a priority — and because they underestimate the cost of bringing the ad-buying operation in-house.

3. Media companies have become even more polarizing. News media companies make up 12 of the 15 most polarizing brands in America today, according to a Morning Consult poll provided to Axios earlier this month. CNN and Fox News continue to be the most divisive news companies.

  • The gap between how Republicans and Democrats view national media brands like CNN and Fox News continues to widen, according to the polling, which points to a growing divide in news diets across America.

4. More partisan outlets are launching to take advantage of the climate. For example, Viacom-owned digital news company Pluto TV, which has no political history, quietly launched a conservative news channel earlier this year.

  • A slew of left-leaning media companies have launched during the Trump administration, with big-dollar backings from progressive non-profits.
  • Local news has become especially vulnerable to competition from partisan information efforts.
  • Campaigns from both parties are also launching their own media arms as a pushback against the "mainstream" media. The Trump campaign is readying the launch of its own quasi-social networking app this fall, while Bernie Sanders campaign launched its own web TV show to communicate directly with voters.

5. State-backed misinformation campaigns are still rampant, and more nations seem to be getting involved this time around.

  • Facebook said Monday that it found new misinformation efforts from groups linked to Iran and Russia. The company says changes to its policies and investments in technology have mitigated the damage that many of these campaigns can cause.
  • But the number of misinformation campaigns by autocratic nations that continue to be uncovered means the geopolitical forces leading to misinformation campaigns have gotten stronger.

6. Facebook is still a hotbed for political outrage, although it's getting better. Nearly 30% of the top 100 stories shared on Facebook during the second half of 2019 so far have been about politics, according to the social analytics company NewsWhip.

  • Hyper-partisan political Pages like OccupyDemocrats on the left and The Epoch Times on the right continue to rank in the top most-engaged Pages on the platform.
  • "Angry" reactions to stories are exceedingly rare apart from political coverage, and especially from political coverage from hyper-partisan pages like Breitbart and OccupyDemocrats.

Yes, but: As Axios' social media editor Neal Rothschild notes, we only have one data point that proves that these trends tend to favor Republicans and Trump: the 2016 election.

  • It could be that some of these trends — like an increase in investments in polarized media outlets and outrage on Facebook — favor anyone who's fighting the status quo, in which case these trends could be working against Trump. After all, many of these trends were also present during the 2018 election, when Democrats took back the House.