Feb 16, 2020

Axios Sneak Peek

By Jonathan Swan
Jonathan Swan

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus our best scoops.

🚀 Today launches the first of a series of pieces in which Axios' media reporter Sara Fischer and I team up to take you inside the mechanics and strategies of the 2020 presidential campaigns.

  • Over the coming months, you'll find stories from our series in both this newsletter and in Sara's weekly Media Trends newsletter.
  • Media Trends is a must-read every Tuesday — packed with scoops on the media business and big picture stories about trends shaping the industry. Sign up free here.

Tonight's newsletter is 1,463 words, a 5.5-minute read.

1 big thing: Scoop — Inside Trump's big hedge on Facebook

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Trump campaign has invested most of its advertising budget to date on Facebook, testing thousands of versions of ads per day to maximize its spending. But behind the scenes, a source familiar with the campaign tells Axios, the thinking has shifted:

“As everyone can see, we still have strong spending on Facebook, but the percentage of our total media budget [on Facebook] is shrinking."

The big picture: Since the last election, it's become obvious that all campaigns are at risk of the changing algorithms and policies at Facebook, or any platform. People familiar with the Trump campaign described its thinking in detail to Axios.

  • Last fall, the campaign urged Facebook to keep the same tools they sell to companies available to political advertisers.
  • "Facebook wants to take important tools away from us for 2020. Tools that help us reach more great Americans & lift voices the media & big tech choose to ignore! They want to raise prices to put more of your hard earned small dollar donations into their pockets," the campaign tweeted in November.

Details: Today, the campaign is testing new strategies on several dozen platforms, including YouTube, Google, ad exchanges, publisher networks and conservative podcasts. The goal is to be less dependent on Facebook — though the platform will still play a crucial role in the Trump 2020 strategy.

  • The Trump campaign began buying ads on conservative podcasts last spring, including shows hosted by staunch Trump allies Charlie Kirk and Laura Ingraham. The goal is to get Trump supporters more engaged in the months before Election Day.
  • "When you are quick, have speed, and money to spend, you need more levers — more places to pivot," says one source familiar with the campaign. "Better expanding outside of Facebook allows that."
  • "We're trying out dozens of places where we can communicate with voters," the source added. "Wherever that comes in an efficient way, we'll spend more money on that."
  • The Trump campaign uses Facebook ads to drive sign-ups for its email and text alerts.

One fun thing: "Trump Train" stickers that the campaign sold in 2016 were inspired by Facebook ad testing that found supporters responded the most to a call to "Join the TRUMP TRAIN" when the variant included flames around the text at the end.

By the numbers: While the Trump campaign still spends big on Facebook ads, the percentage of its ad budget spent there has fallen significantly over the past few months, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

  • Facebook ads took up roughly 72% of the campaign's ad budget in April 2019 and more than 50% for most of the year, per Advertising Analytics. As of mid-February, however, Facebook spending was just 14% of the ad budget.
  • The notable exception was during the impeachment trial in January, when the Trump campaign blitzed Facebook with ads to capitalize on donor outrage and support.
  • From January 2019 to date, Trump for President and Trump’s Make America Great Again Committee have spent about $26 million on Facebook ads out of $58 million on all media spending, per Advertising Analytics.
Expand chart
Data: Advertising Analytics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Go deeper: Read the full piece from Sara and me in the Axios stream

2. Trump's revenge tour has the House in its sights

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Contributor

In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections — buoyed by Republican control of both chambers — President Trump viewed campaigning for the House as a lower-tier priority and instead poured his energy into rallying for the Senate.

  • But after the GOP reckoning in 2018, and experiencing firsthand how damaging a Democratic-led House has been to him, Trump is now personally invested in helping Republicans regain the majority in November, several people familiar with his thinking tell Axios' Alayna Treene.

Why it matters: If Trump wins re-election and Republicans are able to hold the Senate and take back the House, Trump will essentially have free rein to do whatever he wants in his second term.

  • Winning back the House majority is also the best insurance policy against additional attempts to impeach him.

What we're hearing: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Alayna that Trump is "going to travel for us. If you look at where we’re playing, he'll be going. He's already made that commitment to me."

  • Trump has indicated to aides that he is committed to winning back the House this year, a senior administration official tells Axios — largely because McCarthy has told him it's possible.
  • A second Trump administration official said Trump wants revenge on Democrats for putting him through "months of hell" with impeachment and a flurry of investigations.

The state of play: Republicans see the 30 Democratic seats in districts Trump won in 2016 as the most winnable.

  • "Trump has the ability to easily take a lot of these seats offline," Chris Pack, communications director for the National Republican Campaign Committee, tells Axios. He highlighted these four in particular: Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.), Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.), Kendra Horn (Okla.), and Joe Cunningham (S.C.).

But, but, but: Even prominent Republicans privately concede that their chances of actually regaining the majority are slim. Also, Trump has an aversion to small arenas and likes to leave the retail politics to Vice President Mike Pence and other surrogates, like Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr.

  • The view among most GOP strategists who spoke to Axios is that the GOP could pick up around 10 congressional seats. Still, winnowing the gap between the parties (Democrats currently have 35 more seats than Republicans) could make a difference.

What they're saying: "He and I talk twice a day. We meet often about these races. He is committed," McCarthy said. "He'll be in these competitive districts and more."

  • Trump has also committed to providing more resources to House candidates this cycle, McCarthy said: "Going into districts, getting turnout, showing support, raising capital. Going to our dinners."
  • Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, told Alayna the campaign is hopeful that increased turnout among "disengaged voters" will help with House races.

Go deeper: Read the full article here

Bonus: Pic du jour

Photo: Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

President Trump's limo, "The Beast," takes a lap at the Daytona 500 today. They made a complete lap with the full fleet of racing cars, according to a top NASCAR official.

3. Bernie escalates attacks on Bloomberg

Photo : Alex Wong/Getty Images)

"Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sharpened his criticism of Mike Bloomberg on Saturday night, telling an audience of Democrats here that the billionaire former mayor of New York City would bring fatal weaknesses to a general election," the Washington Post's David Weigel reports from Las Vegas.

  • "Mayor Bloomberg, with all his money, will not create the kind of excitement and energy we need to have the voter turnout we must have to defeat Donald Trump," Sanders said.
  • "We will not create the energy and excitement we need to defeat Donald Trump if that candidate pursued, advocated for, and enacted, racist policies like stop-and-frisk, which caused communities of color in his city to live in fear."

Why it matters: That the Democratic front-runner would spend time targeting Bloomberg in a stump speech ahead of the Nevada caucuses — a contest in which Bloomberg is not even on the ballot — tells you a great deal about where the Democratic nominating contest is heading.

  • Bloomberg, with his endless money and success in "hacking your attention," as the NYT's Charlie Warzel aptly put it, is replacing the fading Joe Biden as the bête noire of the Democratic Party's leftist base.
4. Quote du jour

On CNN's "State of the Union," leading 2020 contender Pete Buttigieg responded to Rush Limbaugh ridiculing how "a 37-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage" would play politically in contrast to "Mr. Man, Donald Trump."

"Well, I love my husband. I'm faithful to my husband," Buttigieg responded. "On stage, we usually just go for a hug, but I love him very much."

"And I'm not going to take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh," Buttigieg added in reply to the quadruple-married conservative talk show host.

Limbaugh, to whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his State of the Union speech, recently announced he has advanced-stage lung cancer.

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo: Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The House and Senate are on recess this week.

  • The House will return Tuesday, Feb. 25.
  • The Senate will return Monday, Feb. 24.

President Trump's schedule, per a White House official:

  • Tuesday: Trump will meet with the LA ‪2028 Olympic Organizing Committee in Beverly Hills, California. He will also speak at a fundraising dinner.
  • Wednesday: Trump will speak at a fundraising luncheon in Rancho Mirage, California. He will also deliver remarks on water access in Bakersfield. Later, he will speak at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Thursday: Trump will speak at a Hope for Prisoners Graduation in Las Vegas, Nevada. He will also speak at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
  • Friday: Trump will speak at a campaign rally in Las Vegas.
6. 1 fun thing: Amy Klobuchar, concerned reader

In the olden days before Twitter, people had to go to slightly greater lengths to engage in media criticism. And Amy Klobuchar was one of those people.

  • Christian Schneider, who writes for The College Fix, flagged a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Klobuchar wrote back in 1990 about the paper's coverage of female candidates.
  • At issue was the placement of a profile of five female lieutenant governor candidates in the paper's Variety section, rather than the news section. "Perhaps the editors should have considered interchanging the lieutenant governor's story with the front-page article entitled '55 percent fail national survey on sexual knowledge'," she wrote.

Klobuchar, whose father was a journalist, wrote the letter four years before first running for public office. 

  • "Wow. I forgot about this," Klobuchar tweeted in response. "Pretty good if I do say so myself."
Jonathan Swan