Updated Mar 19, 2019

Another Trump Facebook election

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

While Democrats' campaign launches have sucked up national attention, President Trump's re-election campaign has quietly spent nearly twice as much as the entire Democratic field combined on Facebook and Google ads, according to data from Facebook and Google's political ad transparency reports, aggregated by Bully Pulpit Interactive.

Why it matters: Political advertising strategists say that this level of ad spend on digital platforms this early in the campaign season is unprecedented. The data (captured between December 2018 and now) provides a window into the Trump campaign's 2020 strategy, which until now has been virtually invisible aside from a few rallies.

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Data: Adapted from a Bully Pulpit interactive chart; Chart: Axios Visuals

"The worldview from the Trump campaign is different than anything we've ever seen," says Michael Beach, CEO of marketing analytics firm Cross Screen Media and a veteran of Republican presidential ad campaigns.

The Trump campaign is led by digital vet Brad Parscale, whose home field is analytics and audience targeting.

  • "Spend can only scale with strong performance. We have an experienced team, still together from 2016," a senior member of the Trump 2020 team tells Axios' Jonathan Swan. "But most of all, we have Donald Trump and nothing scales and converts like Trump,"

Be smart: While Democrats need to woo early donors with proof of momentum, President Trump needs to drive support from his base.

  • "The Trump campaign has built a low-dollar fundraising machine that makes hoarding cash less of a priority," says Beach. "Adding votes, whether through persuasion or engagement, trumps cash-on-hand reports.”
  • This allows the Trump campaign to focus on spending the money it's been able to accumulate during the past two years, while Democrats like Beto O'Rourke and Bernie Sanders focus their efforts on raising money for big future ads buys.

When it comes to targeting, both parties' campaigns are currently spending most dollars nationally. But their goals and strategies are very different.

  • Trump is running a heavy national blanket with small targeted buys in states like Florida.
  • Democrats are focused on building a national base of supporters and donors, not early state campaigning yet, according to the data.

By the numbers: Trump is outspending the top-spending Democratic candidates (Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) 9-to-1 when it comes to total advertising spend on Google and Facebook so far.

  • "This is an unprecedented level of investment this early, and especially from an incumbent President," says Mike Schneider, partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive.
  • "Trump has spent at least $13 million in digital media since May 2018, and over $4.5 million in 2019 alone," says Schneider.

The Facebook ad spend by all candidates is far-outpacing Google ad spend, according to the data. Overall, all candidates are spending roughly 3 times as much on Facebook ads than on Google ads. The Trump campaign is investing even more heavily on Facebook, spending 3.5 times as much there as on it is on Google.

  • "If you want to reach actual voters, you have to go where they are and they're all still on Facebook and it's subsidiaries (Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger)," says Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, a permanent digital arm for progressive and centrist campaigns.

The big picture: Trump's Facebook influence won't be limited to ad spend. Even though Facebook has experienced a major backlash since the 2016 election, data from news analytics companies suggests that the same organic media trends that propelled Trump's base on Facebook in 2016 are still prevalent leading up to 2020.

  • National political stories thrive on Facebook, according to data from news analytics company Parse.ly. Since February, almost 28% of all traffic referrals (direct and indirect) to articles about politics, law and government came from Facebook. By comparison, just 9% came from Google.
  • Partisan news sources also thrive on Facebook. Fox News is the most popular news outlet on Facebook so far in 2019, according to a new report from Newswhip, which measures social engagement. Right-wing publishers like The Daily Wire, Daily Mail and Breitbart almost made the cut, as well as some left-leaning outlets.

The bottom line: "Trump's digital sophistication was one of the most over-reported stories of the 2016 election cycle," says Bully Pulpit's Schneider. "Trump'’s digital head start in the 2020 cycle is one of the most under-reported stories."

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