Trump Outpaces Biden in Zeroing In on Voters With Facebook Tools
The Facebook Inc. application is displayed a phone in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Outpaces Biden in Zeroing In on Voters With Facebook Tools

President Donald Trump uses Facebook like a Swiss Army knife -- to raise money, amplify his message, and mobilize voters. His rival, Joe Biden, uses the increasingly controversial social platform primarily to stick his hand out for donations.

As he did in 2016, Trump is taking advantage of the social media giant’s granular knowledge of its users’ interests to target specific ads to specific people, and is doing so much more often than Biden. This “micro-targeting” allows Trump to tap into Facebook’s unique ability to rally his base of voters, who he needs to motivate as he trails Biden in most election polls.

Since entering the presidential contest in April 2019, Biden has spent $21 million on Facebook ads compared to $33 million for Trump over the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the two campaigns are spending the money very differently.

On Friday, people familiar with the company’s thinking said Facebook was considering banning political ads ahead of the U.S. election, but for now it still allows candidates to narrowly target voters using its data.

Micro-targeting is using all the data social networks have on a user, from location to political leaning to what brands they buy, to generate the perfect ad.

Twitter Ad Ban

Google has limited how political campaigns can target voters using its digital ad sales platform, and Twitter has banned campaign ads altogether. Twitter said it did so because of the potential for ads to spread misleading information, while Google said its policy means ads are more widely viewed and available for public discussion like ones airing on television and radio are.

Facebook has also taken only limited steps to ban hate speech that infiltrates some users feeds, which has led some large companies like Unilever NV, Coca-Cola Co. and Starbucks Corp. to temporarily pull their ad dollars from the site.

Users can be targeted based on all kinds of information, including search and travel history. And the ads can be tweaked over time to make them more effective. The Trump campaign does constant testing of its ads and makes small changes on a daily basis.

Through the morning of July 8 Biden’s campaign had bought about 23,000 distinct ads on the platform compared to more than 489,000 for Trump, according to a Bloomberg analysis of data made available by Facebook. About 68% of the president’s ads are seen fewer than 1,000 times compared to 34% for Biden, suggesting much more specific micro-targeting by Trump’s campaign.

Petition Drives

Biden’s campaign is focused on raising money and attacking Trump. So far he hasn’t used Facebook to hone his message or mobilize supporters, but he’s included appeals to sign petitions, which help him build up his list of email contacts, and to donate. Recent pitches asked for 2.5 million supporters to take a stand against Trump’s “hatred, division and calls for violence” by signing an online petition.

Trump Outpaces Biden in Zeroing In on Voters With Facebook Tools

Offering less variation in his Facebook ads could hurt Biden’s efforts to reach the voters he needs, said Damon McCoy, director of the Online Political Ads Transparency Project and a professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. “It’s probably causing them to be less effective,” he said, because the campaign isn’t getting the same level of audience feedback.

Trump’s campaign used Facebook in February to motivate voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, even as he was virtually unopposed in those state’s Republican nominating contests. The campaign put out almost 1,200 ads, which included links to find caucus or polling locations, that were seen between 1.4 million and 2.8 million times.

Voter Turnout

Trump ran away with both contests, getting support of 97% of caucus-goers in Iowa and turning out 2.6 times more voters in New Hampshire than Barack Obama, another incumbent without a serious primary challenger, did in 2012. Trump used the outcome as evidence of the strength of his support.

According to Facebook, which provides data on impressions, cost and other metrics in broad ranges, the total cost of the messaging was between $18,800 and $139,406.

The focus on targeted ads likely helped Trump gain a big lead in early fund-raising, according to Will Bunnett, a principal at the progressive digital ad agency Clarify. But Trump may have another advantage over Biden in using the platform, he said, because of the way Facebook’s algorithm puts ads in front of people who’ll interact with them, often by getting riled up.

“The easiest way to get people to interact with your ads is to get them mad about something,” Bunnett said. “Facebook is a pretty natural fit for him in a way that it might not be for Joe Biden.”

Trump’s Preoccupations

A senior Trump campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the campaign was constantly testing “thousands upon thousands” of ads so voters “are hearing the facts about this president.”

The Biden campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some of Trump’s Facebook ads reflect his rhetoric and preoccupations.

There are more than 50,000 ads mentioning “impeachment,” preceded by the word “bogus” more than 1,000 times, followed by “witch hunt” more than 4,000 times. About 40,000 ads refer to “fake news.”

Old campaign themes like “build the wall” and “drain the swamp” mingle with concerns about Antifa, a loosely-defined left-wing movement Trump said was involved in the June street protests, and which appears in more than 2,000 ads. Attacks on calls to “defund the police” have been in 715 ads so far, since the term made its debut in a June 19 fund-raising pitch.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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