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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As the 2020 election inches closer, Republicans continue to enjoy the digital edge they seized in 2016.

Why it matters: Online ad spending offers President Trump an efficient way to target sympathetic voters with fundraising pitches and barrage them with inflammatory messages on issues ranging from immigration to impeachment.

  • It's especially cost-effective on Facebook, because there, the more an ad proves "engaging" — i.e., hot, attention-grabbing, clicky — the cheaper it is.
  • It's a system made for Trump's style.

The big picture: This conflict, as we've been reporting, is unfolding on platforms that have given politicians a nearly unlimited free pass to tell lies.

Driving the news: The New York Times reported on Sunday that Trump is using ads on digital platforms more aggressively and creatively than Democrats.

By the numbers: Trump's campaign was massively outspending Democrats online earlier this year, but many Democrats have recently opened the floodgates, too.

  • In the last 90 days, Facebook reports say, Trump's campaign has spent approximately $5.3 million on Facebook ads. That's less than the $5.7 million spent by one Democratic candidate, Tom Steyer.
  • Biden may have retreated from the digital field, at least for now, but his rivals have not.

Between the lines: What differentiates the parties is less dollar totals than tactics.

  • Trump's messages are effective at grabbing attention, and his team — led by a campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who was the Trump digital lead in 2016 — relentlessly experiments and tests messages.
  • As is the norm with incumbents, Trump can focus his message on Democratic rivals (and fighting impeachment) while his challengers are still competing to determine who will be the party's nominee.
  • Some Democrats have brought digital ad buying and strategy in-house to cut costs. That could make it harder for them to tap the kind of up-to-date thinking and savvy agencies can offer.
  • Both sides have invested in texting infrastructure. But so far, Republicans have the edge in using text messages for fundraising and messaging.

Yes, but: Democrats have the advantage in small-dollar online donations.

  • ActBlue, a payment processing system used by most of the major Democratic presidential candidates, has pioneered small-dollar donations and donation tracking since 2016.
  • WinRed, the Republicans' rival system, only launched in July.

Our thought bubble: It's hard to envision any candidate winning the 2020 race without a top-notch strategy for digital and social media.

What's next: CEO Mark Zuckerberg will talk about Facebook's role in the 2016 and 2020 elections on an interview with NBC News' Lester Holt this evening.

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