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Post-Parscale, does Trump have a digital edge?

by Daniel Scarvalone

As any fervent Star Wars fan knows, destroying the Death Star didn’t automatically result in peace and justice reigning throughout the galaxy. Even though Brad Parscale’s “Death Star” wasn’t powerful enough to save his job as Trump’s campaign manager, his replacement inherits a formidable digital infrastructure with which Democrats must compete over the remaining 11 weeks of this election.

But a review of the Trump campaign’s advertising over the last two months demonstrates their commitment to the strategies that have enabled the Biden campaign to reach fundraising parity, and open up a small but meaningful polling lead in key states. While the Trump campaign frantically adapts to try to close both gaps, a review of the latest Facebook advertising data showcases how many shortfalls they have to overcome under their new leadership.

Making the campaign a referendum. Presidents win re-election when they successfully define the race as a choice between them and their challenger — and they lose when it becomes a referendum on their performance. Curiously, one thing both campaigns agree on with their digital spend is that the race is all about Donald Trump. It’s no surprise that Joe Biden has spent the majority of his summer talking about Donald Trump, in fact, he’s mentioned him in over 52% of the ad dollars he’s spent on Facebook in swing states since the start of June. What’s curious is that Trump is also devoting an enormous share of his communication in the same manner — he’s spent the same share (52%) of his Facebook advertising dollars talking about himself in those same states. That isn’t to say that Trump isn’t trying to define Biden for his supporters and persuadable voters — about 35% of his swing state ads does mention the former Vice President. But Trump’s team is running a gigantic risk by spending more dollars talking about himself than his opponent to the voters that will decide the election.

Fixing a sputtering donor machine. The Trump campaign boasted of spending over $500MM thus far this cycle to build a “crown jewel” of 20 million donors that could power them through the general election. Despite these substantial investments, the campaign is still continuing to spend money at a massive clip on voters who don’t live in battleground states, indicating how much anxiety they have about their existing core of donors. Every single week this summer, as Joe Biden rapidly closes the fundraising gap — Trump is still spending upwards of 40% of all of his digital advertising dollars in states that aren’t competitive in the electoral college — just to sustain his existing cash flow.

Ignoring senior voters, even as they turn against him. Voters over 65+ are a critical demographic — they comprised 29% of the electorate in 2016 — and their margins of support for Trump have dropped by 14% in the midst of the COVID crisis. But instead of repairing that deficit among seniors, the Trump campaign under-invested in targeting them — spending only 23% of their Facebook advertising dollars in swing states targeting them. Even as seniors have been the age group whose Facebook usage has grown the fastest over the last decade, and as Americans of all ages are consuming more digital content during COVID, the Trump campaign’s pulling back resources towards this vital group is a puzzling response to a marked erosion in public and private polling.

Speaking to Latinx voters exclusively in English. Earlier this month, we announced a partnership with EquisLabs to track Spanish-language ads as part of the 2020 Campaign Tracker. Since Super Tuesday, spend from major political groups on Spanish-language ads has focused primarily on defining Trump — particularly his failure to address the COVID pandemic and divisive culture.

And so far Trump’s campaign is do little to combat this. In two competitive states, Florida and Arizona, for example, 99.5% of the Trump campaign’s ad dollars are being spent on English ads when more that 20% of residents in both states are Spanish speakers.



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