You can learn a lot about the current state of the Trump campaign by reviewing the ads it’s currently running on Facebook. The ads are easily searchable in the Facebook ad archive. Taken together, they tell the tale of an embattled incumbent trying to reenergize his sagging base in time for a reelection bid in 2020. The old storylines are still there (immigration, “Democrats are socialists”), but lately the news of Trump’s possible impeachment has become a major theme.
The Trump campaign runs a lot of ads on Facebook. It launched 338 new Facebook ads Monday. Another 45 began running Sunday. Many of those ads are just slight variations on a theme, targeted at slightly different demographics. So far, the campaign has spent $20.3 million on Facebook ads, about $1.3 million of it in just the past week (September 29 through October 5).
Trump’s Facebook ads focus mainly on impeachment, Democratic socialism, and immigration.
One ad offers an “impeachment poll,” which contains questions like: “Do you believe that Democrats are working with the Fake News media to make up lies about President Trump?” Click on the video in the ad and you’re treated to Donald Trump talking close to the camera about the unfairness of the Democratic push to impeach. “The Democrats want to take away your guns, they want to take away your healthcare, they want to take away your vote, they want to take away your freedom, they want to take away your judges, they want to take away everything,” he complains.
Another ad features an invitation to join Trump’s “Official Impeachment Defense Task Force,” in which members commit to defending the president from “baseless and disgusting attacks.”
Another ad asks Facebook users—mainly those 55 and older—to contribute to an “Official Impeachment Defense Fund.” When you click the “donate now” button, you’re taken to the same donation page all the other ads lead to, but with some special language: “President Trump has been under constant attack and Democrats will continue to lie until they can IMPEACH the greatest President ever.” The small print says that when you make a donation, you’re paying 75% to the Trump campaign and 25% to the Republican party.
The Trump camp is leaning heavily on the risk of the president’s impeachment as bait for donations.
The numbers show that the Trump campaign hit the gas on Facebook ad spending after the Ukraine whistle-blower story broke and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the impeachment investigation official. The campaign spent only about $640,000 on Facebook ads during the first three weeks of September, according to the progressive nonprofit ACRONYM. After Pelosi’s statement on September 24, spending on Facebook ads—many characterizing the investigation as a plot by Democrats to invalidate Trump’s election—rocketed to more than a million during the last week of the month.
The impeachment threat serves a double purpose. It lets Trump propose an alternative impeachment narrative directly to voters, and it angers core Trump supporters enough to rev up donations. Brad Parscale, the man who runs Trump’s digital operation, tweeted out last week that the Trump campaign pulled in 50,000 new donors during the two days after Pelosi’s announcement.
Wow! 50,000 new donors in two days… and growing. @realDonaldTrump supporters are showing up big league.
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) September 27, 2019
The Trump camp reported raising $125 million during the third (September-ending) quarter.
Meanwhile, many of the Democratic presidential candidates are also going large on Facebook ads mentioning impeachment. Kamala Harris led the pack, running more than 400 such ads between September 24 and 29, according to a Reuters count. “No one is above the law. He must be impeached,” one ad read.
Many of the Trump campaign’s ads focus, in various ways, on painting the Democratic party as “socialist.”
One ad now in heavy rotation features a “socialism approval poll.” If you click on it, you’re taken to a poll featuring questions like “Which type of country would you prefer the United States be—thriving Capitalist country or a radical Socialist country?” And: “Who do you think has a better vision for America’s future—President Donald Trump or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”
The “socialism” ads use Nancy Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders as Democratic bogeymen. Despite the casting of Joe Biden as Trump’s “main rival” in the Ukraine debacle, Sanders is the Dem who appears far more often in the Facebook ads. Senator Elizabeth Warren is notably absent from the ads.
Trump’s Facebook ad targeting is weighted toward older voters.
For the vast majority of the ads, the Trump campaign spends very little trying to target people under 45 years old. Some attention is given to the 45-55 crowd, but the main part of the spend goes to targeting people 56 and older. And the campaign usually spends the most money targeting the 65-and-older demos, compared to other age groups. This may be because voter records indicate that people in this demo more reliably make it to the polls on Election Day. It may also be the result of research showing that older people respond more favorably to Trump’s messaging.
This chart (via Ad Archive) shows the typical distribution of the Trump campaign’s ad spending to target various demographic groups.
The Trump campaign is spending more to reach voters in California, Texas, and Florida.
The Facebook Ad Manager lets advertisers (including political campaigns) select the audiences they want to reach on Facebook. They can target users based on their demographics (where they live, how old they are), their behavior (political proclivities), and their interests (famous people, political issues). According to statistics at the Ad Archive, the Trump campaign, at least right now, is focusing on voters in California, Texas, and Florida. While Facebook doesn’t provide the specific ad spend for states, it does show that many of the ads were viewed most in those three states (usually 10% or more of the total impressions).
It’s not surprising that the campaign would be focusing on energizing voters in Texas and Florida—states Trump won in 2016. But pouring a disproportionate amount of ad spend into reaching California voters is a bit surprising, since Trump lost California in 2016 by a wide margin and remains very unpopular in the state. While Trump isn’t likely to win any electoral college votes in California in 2020, connecting with voters in the state might help his showing in the popular vote. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost 3 million votes, a fact that reportedly still hurts his ego.
According to the Facebook Ads Manager, it’s possible to show ads to 5.3 million people who live in California, are 55 or older, and who Facebook believes are likely to engage with conservative political content. Only 3.6 million Floridians fitting that description are reachable, by comparison.
Trump’s Facebook ads have a meme-like look, and a trolling tone.
Many of the Trump ads designed by Parscale’s team have the look and feel of the jokey memes people pass around on Facebook. Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez, and Sanders are usually the targets of the mockery. They’re depicted as angry, crazy, evil, drunk, sick, or senile. The campaign ran this ad on the same day Bernie Sanders left the hospital after suffering a heart attack. (Stay classy, Brad).
In this ad, Nancy Pelosi is depicted as old and/or emaciated, and her eyes appear to have been darkened.
Not surprisingly, some of the Trump ads contain political half-truths.
One ad has Trump saying this in the first person: “Recently, I announced my Second Term Presidential Run in front of the entire world—it was probably the GREATEST campaign announcement in the history of politics . . .”
Another has him saying: “Nobody has ever done so much in the first three years of a presidency.” It was that last line that earned Trump a laugh at the United Nations in September 2018.
Team Trump is running ads that focus on immigration in a different way.
Trump has hammered on the immigration issue since he first announced his candidacy for president in 2015. It’s still a big theme in the campaign’s Facebook ads in 2019.
But some of the immigration ads seem to have a different purpose. The ads Trump ran during the first campaign painted immigrants as the key cause of many social problems (crime, unemployment, etc.), while the current ads are more about Democrats. Specifically, they place the blame on obstructionist Democrats for Trump’s failure to reform immigration and build a wall.
“While I’m fighting to FINISH THE WALL, Democrats continue to choose illegal immigrants over the American people!” one reads. “It’s up to YOU to put pressure on Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to take action to combat illegal immigration.”