4 November 2019

US Election

Battleground 2020

With one year to go until the US presidential election, the social media campaign is already in full effect – and Trump is outspending Democrats

By Ella Hollowood and Chris Newell

On this day next year, the world will know: is it to be four more years of The Trump Show, or will someone find a way to stop him getting a second term in the White House?

The presidential election will be on 3 November 2020, but the race is already strongly underway. And more than ever it is an election that will be fought on Facebook.

In 2016, Russian troll armies used Facebook to pump disinformation into the American bloodstream, while Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of psychological profiles to help Republicans touch voters’ raw nerves.

Since then, the idea of politicians or special interest groups being allowed to flatly lie in their paid adverts on Facebook has become another source of tribal division. Democrats have exposed the flaws in Facebook’s defences – presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren provocatively paid for deliberately false adverts which claimed Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump for 2020. Republicans claim there is a liberal plot to silence conservatives.

While Twitter moved last week to ban political advertising and adverts on divisive issues like abortion and immigration, Zuckerberg himself has used a freedom of speech argument to defend Facebook’s lucrative political ad business which allows voters to be targeted with very specific messages.

“In a democracy, I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians or the news,” Zuckerberg said in an earnings call last week.

One year out, data made public by Facebook can already tell us how much is being spent by candidates, the big themes they are pushing, and the groups being targeted.

Welcome to the start of the 2020 social media wars.

Total spend

So far in 2019, Trump has spent more on Facebook ads than the top four Democratic frontrunners combined.

Who are the Democratic frontrunners?

Where are they spending?

Who’s winning the battleground states when it comes to targeted ad spend?

Battleground number one is Florida. “The swingiest swing state”, and with the most electoral college votes, Florida was scooped up by the Republicans in 2016 with a margin of 1.2%. Obama claimed victory in 2012 by an even smaller margin – just 0.9%…

The next major battleground will be Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral college votes. Obama won here twice, but it flipped in favour of Trump in 2016.

Next up, Michigan. Like Pennsylvania, a traditionally Democratic state, but it helped secure Trump’s presidency by the tiniest of margins (10,704 votes). After the Democrats emerged victorious in the 2018 midterms, the competition will be fierce.

Battleground number four is Wisconsin – Hillary Clinton famously did not campaign there, and paid a price, losing to Trump by 22,748 votes in 2016.

Next is Iowa – the first test for the Democratic hopefuls, with caucuses held in early February. A win here can set any candidate on the path to the nomination. Pete Buttigieg has been outspending the rest…

Finally, Texas. Not strictly speaking a swing state, but becoming bluer and Trump knows it. Beto O’Rourke ran for Senate in 2018 against former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. O’Rourke narrowly lost, but he created a formidable activist network on the ground. Trump’s prolific early spending seems to show he takes nothing for granted against energised young Texan Democrats.

What are the issues?

Which issues are the candidates covering to capture the attention of online audiences?

Since March, Trump’s favourite topic in his Facebook ads has been… himself. Next up, immigration and making sure people wish him a happy birthday – a present to himself that cost nearly $2 million back in June.

Like Trump, Biden spends the majority of his Facebook ad spend talking about himself…

…while the other Democrat candidates use their ads to draw attention to a (slightly) wider-range of issues, from dark money to healthcare and tax.

Who are they targeting?

Finally, who are the candidates trying to win over? Or to be more precise, what demographic is each candidate’s targeted ad spend skewed towards? No surprise that Trump is going for older men, while Bernie Sanders is pushing hardest for young voters.

Further reading

 Data supremo Nate Silver’s analysis of what polls got wrong in 2016 is worth revisiting

Larry Sabato’s work is worth digging into with his crystal ball view of 2020. Note that he thinks Texas is no longer the guaranteed Republican hold of decades past

About the data 

Source: Facebook Ad Library API via 2020campaigntracker.com

Total spend data from 30 December 2018 to 26 October 2019.

State and issue-specific data from 30 March to 26 October 2019.

Target demographic data from 23 March to 26 October 2019. Each score has been calculated by subtracting the percentage of each candidate’s ad spend that is spent on men, women, younger voters (under 45s) and older voters (over 45s) from the percentage of US registered voters who are men, women, younger (under 45) and older (over 45).