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Donald Trump Leads Pack in Social Media Ad Spending for Election 2020

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It's game on for the digital media campaigns of presidential contenders.  (iStock)

Maybe you’ve already noticed ads for presidential contenders on your social media feeds. Brace yourselves: you're going to see a lot more as election 2020 heats up.

President Trump is leading the pack, according to Acronym, a progressive nonprofit working with Democrats to improve their digital game. So far, Trump has spent more than $36 million on Google and Facebook.

What do those ads look like? Something like this one, on YouTube:

Only two Democratic presidential candidates are anywhere near matching Trump's spending, but they trail by a wide margin in polls: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with $34 million spent on Google and Facebook, and billionaire philanthropist and activist Tom Steyer, who paid almost $24 million.

Compare that to television, where Bloomberg and Steyer substantially outpace spending by Trump and his allies. On both platforms, the other candidates fall far behind in terms of ad buys.

2020 candidates total digital spending on Facebook and Google so far. (Source: Acronym)
2020 candidates total digital spending on Facebook and Google so far. (Courtesy of Acronym)

But analysts say you can expect the field of play to change dramatically once the March primary determines who the Democratic contender will be.

"The Democrats have a different challenge right now," said Betsy Hoover, co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, a political technology accelerator. "That's just the reality of a crowded primary."

"Trump and his campaign have been running a general election campaign and advertising program essentially since he was inaugurated in 2017," said Tara McGowan, co-founder and CEO of Acronym. The group runs a political action committee that plans to spend $75 million on digital advertising to counter Trump’s early spending advantage in 2020 battleground states.

That said, every U.S. president with an eye to reelection has used the bully pulpit of his office to garner free advertising by generating news. Trump is no exception, but his capacity to use Twitter to generate conversation and controversy is unprecedented. That's despite the fact that the social media platform announced in October last year it would ban political ads.

The decision was relatively easy for Twitter to make since it doesn't get much of its money from political advertising. The story is different for Google and Facebook, both of which are built on advertising.

Election 2020

Unlike Facebook, which has said it won't fact check ads, Google has taken down hundreds of them for factual inaccuracies — albeit after they ran for awhile and Google got paid.

In November, Google acknowledged public concern about platforms self-policing in an election in announcing it would limit microtargeting — meaning that political ads in the U.S. can only be targeted based on users’ age, gender and ZIP code as of Jan. 6.

A number of analysts say limiting microtargeting will help to reduce the play of misleading ads because they'll reach a wider audience — full of people more likely to call out lies quickly. That's not the case with microtargeting. If you’re a liberal, you have to make an effort to find conservative ads, and the same goes for conservatives looking for liberal ads. Platform algorithms feed ads to viewers likely to find them appealing, or at least not offensive.

But not everyone believes microtargeting is an unmitigated evil, which is how Facebook defends its decision to allow for it:

Unlike Google, we have chosen not to limit targeting of these ads. We considered doing so, but through extensive outreach and consultations we heard about the importance of these tools for reaching key audiences from a wide range of NGOs, nonprofits, political groups and campaigns, including both Republican and Democratic committees in the U.S.

"There's no dark arts," said McGowan of Acronym, which also registers voters. "We have the same talent and strategies on our side. The issue is really resources and time."

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