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Billionaire digital ad wars

Data: Tech for Campaigns; Note: Facebook data is from Nov. 11, 2018, to April 20, 2019. Google data is from Nov. 11, 2019, to April 13, 2019; Chart: Axios Visuals

The two biggest spenders on digital ads between the 2018 mid-terms and now are by far Donald Trump and billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer, according to data from Tech for Campaigns, the digital arm for progressive and centrist campaigns.

Why it matters: "National campaigns, billionaire-funded groups and hot-button advocacy organizations have long been using digital advertising to prospect grassroots donors and activists," says Jake Sticka, VP of Client Strategy at Rising Tide Interactive, a Democratic digital agency. 

Now that Facebook and Google report political advertising data, the messages they are using is much more clear.

The details: Most of Steyer's messaging is around his "Need to Impeach" campaign, a key part of his more than $100 million in spending on midterms.

  • Many of Trump's Facebook ads are focused on immigration and aimed at seniors, Axios reported earlier this month.

Other billionaires are also pouring money into the race:

  • Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity make the top spenders' list. 

Yes, but: The billionaire trend was prevalent last cycle. According to Tech for Campaign's 2018 Political Digital report, of the top 15 spenders overall on political/advocacy ads in 2018, 5 had links to billionaires, including Donald Trump, Tom Steyer, JB Pritzker, and Reid Hoffman.

Between the lines: Some of the biggest spenders on digital advertising since the mid-terms aren't just candidates, but also issue groups looking to grow grassroots support around hot-button issues ahead of the 2020 election.

  • Heavy spenders around issues like gun control, abortion and climate change on mostly Facebook and Google show that the polarizing topics that aren't always the topics of conversation on cable news are being pushed via ads on social platforms where algorithms elevate content that tends to be more emotionally-driven. 
  • "On social media, you're in an attention war, and you need content that makes people stop scrolling - that's what these emotionally-charged issues do," says Greg Dale, Director of Campaign Relations at Tech for Campaigns.

The big picture: Now that we're able to observe the ad spend tactics and messaging on digital, it's possible to see ways that the broader efforts around advocacy messaging leading up to elections haven't fundamentally changed too much, although political messaging has started much earlier. 

  • "Taking a look at the similar period from 2014 into early 2015, there were over 100 different corporations/advocacy groups that spent money on either local broadcast or national broadcast or cable networks, but only issue advertising existed for late 2014/early 2015," said Steve Passwaiter, VP of political advertising at Kantar/CMAG, an ad measurement firm.

Between the lines: The early days of ad campaigning, especially online, are all about building big email lists that can be used to target donors and possibly voters down the line. 

  • Using digital ads to target grassroots donors will be especially important for Democrats this cycle, as the Democratic National Committee has instated a rule that candidates can only participate in debates if they receive donations from at least 65,000 donors.