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September 23, 2020

Interesting accounting of Facebook spending and advertising by presidential campaigns

The Marshall Project has this fascinating lengthy new piece on criminal justice advertising by the presidential candidates during the 2020 election cycle so far.  The full headline of the piece, which highlights its themes, is "Trump’s Crime and Carnage Ad Blitz Is Going Unanswered on Facebook: The president has spent millions on misleading Facebook ads targeting undecided voters, while Joe Biden has been virtually silent."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

To understand how Republicans and Democrats are using criminal justice issues to reach voters, the Marshall Project analyzed hundreds of thousands of political campaign advertisements on Facebook from December 2019 to this month. Arguably the most powerful political messaging platform in history, Facebook allows candidates to microtarget tailored messages to demographic groups and even to individual voters by name.  Probing that data lets us see how candidates reach voters, with a level of detail that earlier generations of strategists and political pundits could only dream of.

Our analysis found that of the $82 million Trump’s reelection campaign has spent on Facebook ads this year, $6.6 million paid for ads about crime and policing — a top focus of his Facebook campaign. Almost all of it came since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May.  More than one-third of those ad buys were aimed at key battleground states and many sought to persuade specific undecided voters, and married women in particular.  The Biden campaign?  It didn’t spend a cent on criminal justice ads on Facebook until late August, choosing instead to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery.  Yet Biden had, during the Democratic primaries, articulated a more progressive criminal justice platform than any of his party’s recent nominees....

Trump’s message on criminal justice began with a focus on reform.  Last December, his campaign ran ads featuring the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill he signed in 2018, boasting that the president was “helping prisoners gain a new lease on life and is making America safer.”

Then in May, for three days before Memorial Day — when George Floyd would die on a Minneapolis street — Trump spent more than $175,000 on ads criticizing Biden for his role in policies like the 1994 crime bill: “Mass incarceration has put hundreds of thousands behind bars for minor offenses.”

It’s not clear who those ads were meant to reach as they sought to capitalize on Biden’s “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black” quote in a May interview.  They disappeared quickly as protests against police brutality began in cities across the country.

By early July, as the protests continued, the Trump campaign had decisively shifted its tone.  In one ad, a 911 call is picked up by an answering machine that says, “You have reached the 911 police emergency line.  Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call.  If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1.”

Around that same time, Biden’s Facebook ads focused on praising essential workers dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and on vague messages of national unity.

You wouldn’t have seen any of these ads if you live in a state like California or Oklahoma that is considered a firm lock for one party.  Biden’s were shown in a narrow group of swing states, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  The Trump campaign paid Facebook about $1.5 million to show its “911” ads only to people in a slightly wider list of battleground states that included Ohio and Texas.  Since June, Trump’s campaign has spent about $2.6 million on criminal justice–related ads targeted to battleground states.

In the battleground states, these persuasive ads are not aimed at every voter.  The power of Facebook for campaigns is that it allows them to show ads directly to the specific voters they think are most likely to be on the fence.  The Trump campaign asked Facebook to show its “911” ad to at least two separate groups of people: first, to married women—the “suburban housewives” Trump has said he hopes to reach — and, second, to people specified by their name or phone number on a spreadsheet the campaign uploaded to Facebook. 

There are two main kinds of political ads on Facebook: ones intended to win votes and ones intended to encourage donations. That Trump’s “911” ad was presented to users in toss-up states suggests the goal was to persuade people to change their minds, according to digital political strategists.  When either campaign wants to raise money, they show ads to their own supporters in uncontested states like deep blue New York where they’d be unlikely to pick up additional electoral votes.

September 23, 2020 at 05:20 PM | Permalink

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