About a quarter of Democratic presidential campaigns’ ad spending on Facebook in recent months has focused on the upcoming debates — a sign of how important the candidates view these forums as they seek to break out of a crowded field.

Of the $9.8 million Democratic candidates spent between March 30 and June 15 on Facebook advertisements, $2.5 million went toward ads that mentioned the Democratic National Committee debates, including their need to reach the required number of donors to get them on the debate stage this week, according to Facebook ad spending data analyzed by Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive.

For the first time, the DNC is requiring that candidates reach a certain number of donors to qualify for the party’s primary debates. The first round of debates will be held Wednesday and Thursday.

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The party will raise its donor threshold as the primary season continues. As a result, candidates who are trailing behind on their donor counts have focused heavily on drawing the requisite number of donors that will help them qualify for upcoming debates.

The focus highlights the messaging gap between the sprawling Democratic field andPresident Trump, who holds a stark fundraising advantage as he campaigns for reelection.

Democrats are primarily tailoring their messages to the party’s reliable primary voters — including voters in the candidates’ home states and those in states that will be casting the first ballots next year.

Trump, meanwhile, is focused on building his general-election game. He is spreading out his Facebook ad spending almost proportionately to the share of general-election voters in each state, Bully Pulpit Interactive’s data show. The firm uses publicly available Facebook ad spending data.

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Trump’s Facebook ads are making a case for his reelection, with a focus on immigration, “fake news” and his record as president.

“The relentless focus on qualifying for the debates is taking Democrats away from talking about the issues that define the election,” said Daniel Scarvalone, senior director at Bully Pulpit. “That’s the thing that keeps me up at night a fair amount. The campaigns are all rightfully focused on the tactics that get them on the debate stage, but no one’s defining the terms of the contrast with Donald Trump.”

The biggest spenders on debate-related ads from March 30 to June 15 were candidates who were scrambling to meet the donor goal before the deadline, and those who were already working toward the higher donor threshold in September, data show.

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The top spenders debate-related ads on Facebook: Julián Castro ($396,967), Jay Inslee ($378,553), Kirsten Gillibrand ($337,879), Cory Booker ($303,114), Michael F. Bennet ($248,311) and Marianne Williamson ($242,871).

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By running these ads, Democratic campaigns are able to grow their email lists and attract new potential voters to their campaign.

The overall Democratic presidential candidates’ Facebook spending on ads relating to DNC debates spiked in the two weeks following the DNC’s announcement that it was increasing its donor threshold for campaigns to qualify for the September debate, BPI data show.

The limitation on the Democratic side is of concern among the party’s digital strategists, given the emphasis on online donations for both Trump and Democrats. Campaigns need to develop a sophisticated online strategy to overcome the president’s lead on digital spending and messaging, Democratic strategists say.

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Facebook is still the most cost-effective digital advertising method for campaigns, with an audience that has shifted more liberal since the 2016 election, according to a study by Tech for Campaigns, a group that helps Democratic candidates with digital outreach.

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The Trump campaign is already a major spender on Facebook for the 2020 election cycle. Flush with cash, the Trump reelection operation, along with the Republican National Committee, are ramping up their digital operation and staff and flooding Facebook with ads.

Trump’s Facebook spending lead gives his campaign the opportunity to constantly improve its ability to target and persuade voters online while some Democratic candidates are struggling to get voters to learn their names.

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