The Trump campaign’s Facebook ads were 30% more effective than Biden’s when comparing dollars spent and ads seen. Despite this massive advantage, the ads did not result in a Trump victory. In several swing states, Trump’s ad advantage did not result in higher turnout. In others, even the effectiveness advantage nearly vanished.
Political advertisements played a critical role in the 2020 presidential election, but GovPredict determined that they have limits, especially in turning out the vote. The COVID-19 pandemic made traditional campaign activity more difficult, so social media was an especially critical battleground between the candidates. The very existence of political ads on social media proved to be controversial, with Twitter going so far as to ban them outright on its platform. Facebook, on the other hand, allowed them. Combined, the Trump and Biden campaigns spent $165 million on Facebook ads, more than double the amount spent during the 2016 election.
This article is part one of a three-part series analyzing the spending and the effectiveness of political ads on Facebook. In each article, we analyze Facebook ad data to determine what, if anything, these millions of dollars did to impact the outcome of the 2020 election.
The State of Ad Spending
As the race progressed from early April (when Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee) to Election Day, the Trump campaign generally poured more money into Facebook ads than the Biden campaign on a weekly basis. The only exceptions to this were a spike in spending by the Biden campaign in early June, and the final weeks of the race, when both campaigns drastically accelerated their spending (spending fell sharply in the final days of the race, though, because Facebook policies prohibited new ad buys in the last week before Election Day). Interestingly, there was no apparent increase in ad buys by candidates during the week of their respective party conventions (the Democratic National Convention ran from Aug. 17-20, and the Republican National Convention from Aug. 24-27).
As campaigns ran millions of dollars worth of ads in 2020, their goal was to drive impressions (how many times an ad was viewed by Facebook users).
For both candidates, impressions were tightly tied to ad spending. As would be expected, when spending spiked, so did the number of people viewing a campaign’s ads:
Trump’s Facebook Ads Consistently More Effective
While both campaigns spent money on Facebook ads, the Trump campaign received more impressions per dollar than Biden. This was consistent over the course of the entire race. More people saw Trump ads, per dollar spent, than saw Biden ads.
The Trump campaign saw an average of 45.7 impressions per dollar spent, while the Biden campaign only saw 36.7 impressions per dollar spent. From April until Election Day, this means that Trump’s ads were 28% more effective (in terms of views for money spent) than Biden’s.
Trump’s Effective Ads Did Not Drive Voter Turnout
One main reason for running ads is to encourage supporters to vote. The echo chamber of social media is not very good at moving moderates to one side or another. Instead, it has traditionally been seen as a powerful tool to get more partisan voters out to the polls.
Looking at the state-by-state numbers, we see that all of these effective ads appear to have not helped at all.
Even in states where the Trump campaign’s ads massively outperformed Biden’s, the right-leaning electorate still did not show up to deliver these states to the incumbent.
Trump Campaign Falls Short in Swing States
Although the Trump campaign’s ads were significantly more effective than Biden’s overall, in key swing states, this advantage diminished. In the key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan (all of which flipped after going for Trump in 2016), Trump’s ads were only 3.1%, 8.4%, and 11.6% more effective than Biden’s, respectively; in Florida, which stayed red in 2016 but was a key 2020 battleground, Trump’s ads were only 10.6% more effective.
See below for a full list of states and the Biden and Trump campaigns’ ad effectiveness.
Overall, Facebook ads were an effective way for campaigns to gain voters’ attention; the Trump campaign was significantly more effective than the Biden campaign with its ad spending, but this advantage fell short in key states.
The next article in GovPredict’s Facebook 2020 series will examine the relationship between political ads on social media and the presidential campaign’s fundraising strategy. In the meantime, do you or your organization need a way to track political spending and navigate the complex world of campaign finance? Schedule a consultation with one of our experts to see how GovPredict’s Donor Research tool can go to work for you.