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Political Digital Advertising in 2020

It’s no secret that the growth of digital marketing as a political tactic was a major story in 2016. It was the first year that political ad spend online topped $1 billion, up from just $22 million in 2008. The ability of Facebook and Google to reach a wide audience cheaply—and then to target specific subsets of the population—is attractive to political campaigns. Depending on where you live, you’re likely already seeing a lot of ads on YouTube, connected TV, and your social media channels. The persistence of the covid-19 pandemic curtailing earned media, lessons learned from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and the increased viability of digital channels’ improved targeting and scale is all adding up to make 2020 an even more robust and complicated year for political advertising.

The coronavirus pandemic has put campaigns, both local and national, in the position of having to cancel or radically reimagine most in-person political events, which were long the most popular way to spread a message. Conventions and rallies are a guaranteed means of creating a tremendous amount of earned media. (In 2016, Donald Trump’s rallies earned him an estimated $2 billion in “free” coverage.) This year, things are different. People are following the news more than ever, and candidates are being forced to look for new ways to campaign, like fundraising and town halls on Zoom. The Democratic and Republican national conventions are digital this year, a historic first, and promise to create a more intimate and unique experience. Julian Zelizer, a political historian and professor at Princeton, tells Reuters that the digital convention could even be “more valuable this year than in other years, particularly for Democrats, because most people have not been paying as much attention to the nominee lately and he hasn’t been campaigning.”

Of course, advertising isn’t going anywhere. It’s just moving online. Presidential campaigns have additional budgets for creative fundraising because of reduced travel, lighter campaign staffs and salaries. As a result, media budgets have grown from 40% of political spending to almost 55%. Donald Trump has promised a huge ad buy during the Democratic National Convention, which is underway this week, and much has been written about Joe Biden’s campaign following suit to go big on digital ads — up to 20% of the campaign’s media budget, which is reported to be over $280 million.

Where and how to advertise online is also a complicated proposition. Facebook is mulling a decision to withdraw its political advertising in the run-up to the election, but as discussed on a recent eMarketer podcast, other platforms also hold great potential for political marketing and messaging. Digital channels are easier to scale than traditional, but as is always the case with politics, harder to measure. Shoppers can move the needle on ROI, but in politics, a lot is uncertain until the ballots are cast. Still, 2018 proved for local campaigns that an improvement in targeting across all channels was worth the investment. One-third of the population now are cord-cutters (or “cord nevers”), and connected TV and streaming use are up almost ten times during the year of coronavirus.

2020 has proven to be the most interesting year in many for our politics, our media, and our advertising. Already the combination of these in the upcoming fall election has proven to be exhilarating, exhausting, and endlessly complicated. The coronavirus accelerated many changes that were already happening in our society, like an increase in working from home and the boom in digital shopping, and now the battle to win in politics looks a lot like a battle to win the internet.