FWIW: A deep dive into the top 5️⃣

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12 mins read

Welcome to FWIW, ACRONYM’s weekly newsletter breaking down digital strategy and investments across the political spectrum. Each week, we look at how campaigns are – or aren’t – leveraging smart digital strategies to drive narratives and win elections.

For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.

2020 Democratic primary polling seems to have stabilized around five candidates: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Harris—more or less in that order. With under four months to go before the Iowa caucus 😱😱😱, each of these presidential hopefuls’ advertising strategies are starting to change and differ greatly, not unlike the race itself. That’s why this week we took a closer look at at the messaging and targeting strategies of these front-runners’ online ads.

But first…

2020 by the numbers

Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has spent nearly $24 million on Facebook and Google advertising alone since the 2018 midterm elections. On the non-spending front, we thought you’d like to know his campaign has joined Twitch, The Verge reported yesterday 🤷‍♂️.

Last week, the Trump campaign continued to spend more online than ever before – especially with a massive investment on YouTube – but in the past few days he may have started to roll back some of his Facebook spending. You can view these charts + more at our FWIW spending dashboard here.

…and here’s your Trump post-im🍑ment spending update:

Donald Trump’s Google spend spiked dramatically last week – as his campaign made a massive buy on YouTube to continue promoting a false Biden-Ukraine conspiracy theory to millions of viewers.

On the Democratic side, not much changed last week. Tom Steyer’s campaign was the largest spender, and they are spending over half a million dollars a week throwing a lot at the wall to see what sticks. His ads focused on saying he would apologize for slavery, he would stop climate change, he supports impeachment, and one ad even attacks Jeff Bezos.  

…and here are the top political spenders on Facebook + Google from September 29th to October 5th:

🚨The Trump campaign’s online impeachment ad onslaught disturbed a lot of folks, including our team at ACRONYM, so we decided to do something about it. Yesterday, we announced we’re going up with a $1 million ad campaign on Facebook and YouTube to break down the impeachment inquiry for Americans with the facts, explain to people in key states why Trump’s actions crossed the line and learn what information and content we disseminate is most effective at informing and mobilizing constituents. Here’s some of what we’re running:

It ain’t spices, but we believe arming Americans with the facts around what can be a complicated but critically important inquiry and investigation can counter the misinformation Trump is spreading on the same channels. If you’re interested in helping this program expand, you can do that here.

Deep Dive: A deep dive into the top 5️⃣

As the first caucuses and primaries come into focus, we’ve been able to see a little bit more of the Democratic campaigns’ advertising strategies and how they differ (and they differ a lot!). While most of the campaigns still rely on very generic fundraising content in their Facebook ads, others have branched out and become more creative.  🙌🏼 Here’s a little of what we’re seeing: 

Pete Buttigieg  👞

Mayor Pete’s campaign has spent more on digital advertising than every leading candidate in the Democratic presidential field to date, and in the past 60 days, has laser-focused it’s Facebook ad buying on two of the early states: Iowa and New Hampshire. His path to the nomination depends on a strong showing in Iowa, and he’s the only candidate to have spent a greater percentage of his Facebook ads in Iowa than in donor-rich California. 

Here’s his breakdown of Facebook ad spending budget in the past 60 days: 12.1% in Iowa, 9.7% in New Hampshire, 1% in South Carolina, 0.5% in Nevada. 

Doing some quick math, that means his campaign has spent around $250,000 on Facebook ads targeting Iowa voters in the past two months – five times more than any other candidate. 

Their ads in Iowa have ranged from boosting local news stories to raise awareness for their policy platform, promoting Facebook events for Iowans to meet Pete, and have started running ads gathering data on potential caucus-goers:

The Buttigieg campaign also has done some of the most creative ads of the cycle, from using pretty terrible puns for fundraising, to really nice Instagram and Snapchat ads targeting younger voters. When it comes to digital advertising, the Buttigieg campaign isn’t just using advertising for fundraising – they have an all-of-the above approach, and have invested in that strategy. 

Elizabeth Warren 📚

Here’s her breakdown of Facebook ad spending budget in the past 60 days: 3.6% in Iowa, 3.3% in Nevada, 3.1% in New Hampshire, 2.2% in South Carolina.

Continuing to rise in the polls in the early states and nationally, Elizabeth Warren’s digital advertising reflects her brand – promoting on the ground events, rolling out her many plans to voters across the country, and highlighting her grassroots fundraising strategy with her genius donor call-time tactic. Her small dollar call-time video ads have become a meme, with supporters around the country sharing and hoping she’ll call them next. 

Many of Elizabeth Warren’s ads just look different – they are bold, wordy, wonky, and cover nearly every policy issue imaginable, just like what her supporters come to expect from her. We applaud her digital programs’ always-on-brand approach.  👏

Joe Biden 🇺🇸 

Here’s his breakdown of Facebook ad spending budget in the past 60 days: 6.9% in Iowa, 4.5% in New Hampshire, 1% in South Carolina, 0.9% in Nevada.

Comfortably leading the polls for most of the year, Joe Biden has been running a general election campaign – and that’s also seen online. They’ve leaned into what many think is their best argument – that Biden can beat Trump, and have pushed that message hard for months. Their ads are the most conventional of this group – deadline driven fundraising creative with big buttons – they look the most like political Facebook ads.  🤐

After initially hesitating to engage online around im🍑ment, the Biden team recently launched a fundraising campaign on Facebook capitalizing on the President’s attacks on him and his family, and has been aggressively attacking the administration’s corruption since. New ads up this week ask supporters if the President should be impeached:

Kamala Harris ⚖️

Here’s her breakdown of Facebook ad spending budget in the past 60 days: 3.6% in Iowa, 2.2% in South Carolina, 1.6% in New Hampshire, 1.3% in Nevada.

Judging by her current Facebook ad targeting, Kamala Harris has, in fact, moved to Iowa. Following the September FEC deadline, she’s only running a handful of ads, all targeted in Iowa, that either drive email acquisition or local event signups. Her campaign has also invested in boosting favorable news articles about her to voters there. 

All of her pre-FEC deadline ads were videos, either of Kamala herself or her supporters asking for small-dollar donations.

Kamala has seems to have scaled back her operation a bit – for now. But in the run-up to the FEC deadline, she tested a lot of Facebook ads, which is core to her digital strategy – she’s tested nearly 100,000 Facebook ad variations since her campaign began – more than any other candidate. 

Bernie Sanders ⚾️

Here’s his breakdown of Facebook ad spending budget in the past 60 days: 3.8% in Iowa, 1.2% in Nevada, 1% in South Carolina, 0.8% in New Hampshire

Bernie’s advertising ad strategy nationwide (even in 2016) has always used his populist appeal to grow his movement – driving either field organizing signups or those $27 donations. His ads usually feature some combination of “Medicare for All” and more than a few feature the senator’s hand or fist up ✊🏼. Most of his ads serve the purpose to fuel his organizing campaigns – and as we’ve noted before, his supporters are very self organized into groups online and around the world. 

Notably, his grassroots organizing ads both in the early states and nationwide have focused on his appeal to voters of color and white working class voters:

Aside from his obviously Iowa-specific event organizing ads, Bernie isn’t doing a lot of Facebook ad targeting in the first caucus state.

What are you hearing? 

Have you seen any political ads by a candidate or cause that you think are exceptional or that we should dig into or highlight? Shoot us an email and send them our way

One more thing… ➡️🤳 

That’s all for this week. But before you go, we have one more ask of you! ⚡️If you enjoy reading FWIW each week, help us grow our following + spread the word! Forward this email to a few friends, or click below to follow @anotheracronym on Twitter! Remember, every time you share FWIW, a new progressive digital ad might just find its wings … 💸

P.S. You can find this and other issues of FWIW here and read this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia at this link.


DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.


ACRONYM is a nonprofit organization committed to building power and digital infrastructure for the progressive movement.

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