The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton owns the TV airwaves, but Donald Trump may be winning online

Donald Trump. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
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From the outset of the general-election campaign, Hillary Clinton has dominated the television advertising contest. She's outspending Republican rival Donald Trump by huge margins, even now that Trump is actually buying TV ads. Trump's paltry spending on traditional ad spots is so low that it's hurting TV networks. On Tuesday, ABC News reported that Clinton will spend 53 times as much on ads in Florida as Trump through Election Day.

But in online advertising? Different scene.

As The Washington Post's Matea Gold reported Tuesday, Trump ramped up his overall spending totals in August, according to just-released filings sent to the Federal Election Commission. His campaign has spent about $120 million, about $63 million of which was in May through August. Of that $120 million, about a fifth has gone to the digital media company Giles-Parscale, Gold notes. In August, the company was paid $11.1 million, more than any other vendor. (The firm's Brad Parscale serves as the campaign's digital director.)

There are a lot of ways that campaigns can spend money on digital media. There's fundraising, those tedious emails that campaigns send to donors insisting that they're going to lose unless you and (some random number) other people in (your town) contribute $(some small sum) before midnight tonight. There's the website and so on. There are online ads. Often one firm provides a number of these services, making it a bit tricky to suss out how much is being spent on what. Clinton spent $33 million on producing and airing television ads in August, according to Gold, a little more than two-thirds of the nearly $50 million she spent.

We can get some sense of how online fundraising for the two campaigns compares thanks to analysis from the firm Pathmatics. The firm's Kenneth Roberts provided The Post with its estimates for spending on digital ads by the two campaigns in three formats: desktop, mobile and video. The numbers are broken out by spending -- the amount spent on the ads -- and impressions, a term of art for the display of an ad one time. It doesn't include buys on smaller sites, but covers most major outlets.

According to Pathmatics' estimates, Trump spent about $4.5 million in August in all three categories to Clinton's $3.4 million. On desktop, he has about a 3-to-2 advantage; on video, she has vastly outspent him. The firm figures that Trump's ads received about 1 billion impressions over the past month to Clinton's 601 million. These are estimates of spending, but these estimates suggest that for every three ads Clinton ran, Trump ran about five. So far this month, Trump's outspending Clinton $1.9 million to $1.4 million.

A lot of Trump's ads were seen by people who probably already support him, suggesting that some portion of it overlaps with solicitations for contributions. ProPublica's Derek Willis broke out where the campaigns have run ads over the past month, finding that Trump advertised heavily on AOL's network. Significantly, Pathmatics reports that Trump spent almost $2 million at AOL sites on Aug. 31 alone -- suggesting a lot of spending on a last-minute fundraising push.

On mobile, the top site for Trump ads was Breitbart, according to Willis, the company once run by Trump's new campaign chief, Steve Bannon. On desktop, Breitbart was Trump's fourth-biggest investment, after Politico and the Drudge Report. Nearly three-quarters of the spending by Clinton's campaign was at the New York Times, Politico and The Washington Post, Willis said. An additional 7 percent of her campaign's ads were at Mother Jones. Clinton also advertised frequently next to Politico stories that mentioned Trump, Roberts said.

What these numbers don't tell us is much about who was targeted, beyond rough guesses based on the sites where the campaigns chose to advertise. Also missing: spending at Facebook, where campaigns can target voters very specifically. Through July, Clinton's campaign reported less than $1,000 spent directly at Facebook, although her media buyers may have billed her campaign for ads on the social network. Trump's campaign reported more than $250,000.

This strategy for Trump is of a piece with his overall effort: leverage his online popularity and national media attention for success. Yes, he's getting outworked by Clinton in most traditional metrics of campaign success, including TV ad spending. But he seems to be betting that he can win despite that, betting that a non-traditional campaign can ensure the election of a non-traditional candidate.