May 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden campaign spends big to close digital deficit

Note: Those highlighted in bold have officially entered the race. Data: FWIW Newsletter; Chart: Axios Visuals

In its first month, President Biden’s re-election campaign has already tripled what Donald Trump’s team has spent in online ads in 2023, an attempt to jump-start small donations and lessen Trump’s digital advantage.

Why it matters: Biden needs to lean more heavily into digital advertising to gain traction with donors, as he can’t rely on his organic reach online as much as Trump, who is currently the leading GOP presidential contender.

  • Despite Trump being temporarily banned by most major social media platforms in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, his following still dwarfs Biden's and those of the 2024 GOP rivals.
  • Biden's campaign wants to signal strong grassroots support with a large number of individual donors when it discloses fundraising numbers in July.

Be smart: That's a shift from the 2020 election when Trump’s campaign focused on digital early on and hired a digital-first campaign manager, Brad Parscale.

  • Parscale ultimately was replaced, but Trump's campaign spent more online than Biden's, even as Biden's team spent significantly more on TV. A Biden adviser said the team believes its strategy was more effective for less money.
  • Parscale and former digital director Gary Coby, who led Trump’s digital teams in 2016 and 2020, are not working for Trump’s 2024 campaign. Instead, Trump’s digital effort is being led by Parks Bennett, co-founder of the firm Campaign Inbox.
  • Trump's main super PAC, Make America Great Again PAC, has spent nothing on Facebook or Google ads — but has dumped several million dollars into TV advertising.
  • Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung told Axios that "the campaign will fully utilize both traditional and non-traditional forms of media, including a significant investment in digital, to ensure President Trump’s message will reach as many people as possible."

Zoom in: Biden's team has spent more than $2.4 million on Facebook and Google ads in its first month and has continued to be the top campaign spender on Facebook ads the past four weeks, according to data from FWIW News.

  • In its first week, Biden’s campaign spent more than $1 million on Facebook and Google ads, according to Bully Pulpit Interactive, a political ad agency. Most of the campaign's digital efforts are being run through the Democratic National Committee as the re-elect's infrastructure is being built, according to a Biden adviser.
  • In all of 2023, Trump has spent more than $600,000 on such ads while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — widely expected to be Trump's chief GOP rival — has spent $680,000. That includes spending from their aligned super PACs, according to FWIW News.

Zoom out: Trump’s social media following outpaces all of his rivals except on Snapchat, where he is permanently banned.

  • Facebook:
    • Trump: 34M followers
    • Biden: 11M followers
    • DeSantis: 542,000 followers
  • YouTube:
    • Trump: 2.73M subscribers
    • Biden: 711,000 subscribers
    • DeSantis: 20,900 subscribers
  • Instagram:
    • Trump: 23.4M followers
    • Biden: 17.5M followers
    • DeSantis: 994,000 followers
  • Twitter:
    • Trump: 87M followers
    • Biden: 37.1M followers
    • DeSantis: 1.7M followers
  • Snapchat:
    • Trump: 0 followers
    • Biden: 450,000 followers
    • DeSantis: 0 followers

The other side: Since being reinstated on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, Trump hasn't tweeted and he hasn't used Facebook, Instagram or YouTube as much as he did in the past. He posted most frequently on his own platform, Truth Social.

  • A Biden adviser told Axios that the campaign will absolutely not join Truth Social.

The big picture: The vast majority of election ad spending is still on broadcast television, but the proportion of digital advertising has been increasing steadily during the past decade. More eyeballs are there and it’s critical to each campaign’s small-dollar fundraising strategy.

  • Digital ads make it easier for campaigns to collect user data and get supporters to click on a donation page directly.
  • Neither campaign is on the popular app TikTok, although the Democratic National Committee has an account. For security purposes, the DNC says it posts to TikTok only with a burner phone.
  • The Republican National Committee has criticized Democrats for using the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.

State of play: Neither the Trump nor Biden campaigns revealed their small-dollar fundraising totals in the first 24 hours of announcing their election bids, but there is early data suggesting a Trump edge in such fundraising.

  • When Trump appeared in a New York court to face felony charges last month, traffic to the Republican’s small-dollar fundraising site, WinRed, spiked to nearly 1 million views, according to Similarweb estimates. The site typically got about 275,000 views a day in April.
  • Biden's campaign launch on April 25 coincided with a peak of about 475,000 visits for the ActBlue Democratic Party fundraising website. The site had been getting a little over 300,000 visits per day.
  • A Biden adviser dismissed that data as like trying to measure weight in inches. The same adviser said that Biden was the best online fundraiser in the Democratic Party’s history.

Also, but: Biden raised unprecedented sums online during the 2020 general election against Trump but struggled to raise money online during the Democratic primary, when candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren outpaced him.

Go deeper