Digital Spending Dominates in Early 2020 Presidential Race

Candidates Have Spent $61 Million on Facebook and Google and Just $11 Million on TV

(MIDDLETOWN, CT) September 19, 2019 – Spending by presidential contenders on ads on Facebook and Google has reached $60.9 million this year, according to a new analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. Those same candidates have spent about $11.4 million on television ads.

Table 1 shows that topping the list of spenders on digital advertising is Donald Trump, whose campaign and joint fundraising committee with the RNC have spent almost $16 million on advertising on Facebook and Google, the two largest digital platforms for political advertising. Trump is not alone in investing heavily on digital. Tom Steyer’s campaign has spent $6.6 million on Facebook and Google platforms this year, while his Need to Impeach super PAC has spent $3.9 million. Three other candidates, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are all above the $4 million mark in digital ad spending. Joe Biden, who is leading in almost every poll of the Democratic nomination race, has spent about $3.2 million on digital ads.

Table 1: Pro-Candidate Spending on Digital Campaign Ads by Sponsor

SponsorFacebook
Spending ($)
Google
Spending ($)
Total ($)**
Figures come from the Facebook ad library reports and the Google Transparency Report.
Spending covers the January 6, 2019, to September 12, 2019, period for Facebook;
Google’s transparency report as of September 16 only included data through the week of August 25, so Google spending covers the January 6, 2019 to August 31, 2019 period.
Candidate numbers include spending by official campaign committees, leadership PACs, and joint fundraising committees.
For some candidates, total spending also includes spending from their Senate or House campaign accounts.
*Super PACs supportive of particular candidates are listed separately. The row "Super PAC Total" includes just the four super PACs listed in this table. Some spending by Need to Impeach occurred before Steyer officially entered the presidential race.
**The final column can be used to return to the original sorting of the table.
See About the Data section at the end of this report for more info on our methodology.
Donald Trump10,102,7635,806,40015,909,1631
Tom Steyer4,485,8652,116,7006,602,5652
Pete Buttigieg2,824,1741,793,6004,617,7743
Elizabeth Warren2,437,0021,858,4004,295,4024
Bernie Sanders3,241,587836,2004,077,7875
Kirsten Gillibrand2,792,358511,4003,303,7586
Joe Biden2,183,9151,037,4003,221,3157
Kamala Harris1,777,9691,331,6003,109,5698
Cory Booker1,862,272463,8002,326,0729
Amy Klobuchar1,882,248331,6002,213,84810
Julián Castro1,705,009155,4001,860,40911
Beto O'Rourke873,313636,9001,510,21312
Andrew Yang1,275,371150,9001,426,27113
Tulsi Gabbard482,712778,1001,260,81214
Jay Inslee895,626345,6001,241,22615
Marianne Williamson993,111199,0001,192,11116
Michael Bennet764,62038,400803,02017
John Hickenlooper441,979112,800554,77918
Steve Bullock250,961130,800381,76119
Seth Moulton231,23062,000293,23020
Eric Swalwell128,74898,800227,54821
Bill de Blasio105,85664,000169,85622
Tim Ryan61,896103,500165,39623
Mike Gravel115,4234,500119,92324
Bill Weld25,510025,51025
Wayne Messam11,0155,50016,51526
Joe Sestak641064127
28
Need to Impeach (pro-Steyer)1,850,8372,070,8003,921,63729
Act Now on Climate (pro-Inslee)439,75787,900527,65730
Great America PAC (pro-Trump)90,6506,90097,55031
Draft Beto (pro-O'Rourke)9,89809,89832
33
Candidate Total41,953,17418,973,30060,926,47434
Super PAC Total*2,391,1422,165,6004,556,74235
GRAND TOTAL44,344,31621,138,90065,483,21636

“At this stage in the campaign, candidate spending is driven by supporter list-building and investing heavily to secure enough donors to qualify for the Democratic debates,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

Tom Steyer’s substantial investment on digital ads is particularly noteworthy in this regard. He did not make the cut for the September 12 debate, but he has qualified for the mid-October debate in Ohio.

All told, Facebook (including Instagram) has earned $44.3 million from selling ads to presidential aspirants and supportive super PACs in 2019, while Google (including YouTube) has raked in over $21 million.

Steyer Dominates TV; Trump Dominates Digital Ad Spending

Although the Trump campaign has spent the most of any campaign on digital advertising, Tom Steyer has dominated spending on television. When one combines television and digital spending, Steyer has spent nearly $16 million on ads, which is almost as much as Trump, as Figure 1 shows. All other candidates are far behind the two leaders in spending.

Figure 1: Spending on Facebook, Google, and TV by Presidential Candidates
and Affiliated Committees

Digital figures come from the Facebook ad library reports and the Google Transparency Report.
Spending covers the January 6, 2019 to September 12, 2019, period for Facebook. Google’s transparency reports as of September 16 only included data through the week starting August 25, so Google spending covers the January 6, 2019 to August 31, 2019 period.
Candidate numbers include spending by official campaign committees, leadership PACs, and joint fundraising committees. For some candidates, totals also include spending from their Senate or House campaign accounts. Super PACs supportive of particular candidates are not included.
TV data come from Kantar Media/CMAG and include candidate-sponsored ads aired on national network, national cable and broadcast television between January 6 and September 12, 2019.
See About the Data section at the end of this report for more information on our methodology.
Data visualization work by Kevin McMorrow ’20.

Steyer has spent over $9 million on television ads since announcing his candidacy in early July, outstripping the TV spending of any other presidential aspirant (Table 2). A distant second in terms of TV ad spending was Kirsten Gillibrand, who has since dropped out of the race. John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard and Joe Biden’s campaigns have each spent between $300,000 and $350,000 on political ads. Donald Trump has largely stayed off the air, spending only $297,000 to air 36 TV spots in 2019.

Table 2: Television Ad Spending and Airings by Presidential Candidates

CandidateAiringsCost ($)
Numbers include candidate-sponsored ads aired on national network,
national cable and broadcast television between January 6 and September 12, 2019.
As is typical with WMP's reporting of candidate-sponsored TV ad activity, these
numbers do not include ads aired by leadership PACs or joint fundraising committees.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the
Wesleyan Media Project.
Tom Steyer26,7809,099,960
Kirsten Gillibrand2,788746,980
John Delaney1,431346,800
Tulsi Gabbard1,302333,650
Joe Biden706301,530
Donald Trump36297,550
Kamala Harris810232,150
Pete Buttigieg25390,560
Julián Castro217,430
Mike Gravel53,920
Total34,13211,460,530

Total presidential spending on TV, including candidates and groups, is down slightly in 2020 compared to 2016 ($14.9 million compared to $19.8 million four years prior). Candidate spending on TV ads in 2020, however, is higher than four years ago at $11.4 million compared to $4.2 million at this point in 2015. The Clinton campaign accounted for $3.4 million of that total in 2015.

A small number of groups have weighed in on TV in the presidential race. Table 3 shows those groups that have spent more than $10,000 on television ads that explicitly mention a presidential candidate. The most active group was Steyer’s Need to Impeach. Those ads mostly aired in January and February of this year, half of them in Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina; they also tended to feature Steyer talking to the camera about Trump. Act Now on Climate, a super PAC, spent about $230,000 to run ads supportive of Jay Inslee, who is no longer in the race. The Judicial Crisis Network spent about $150,000 on ads attacking Democrats and supporting Trump, while the Senate Leadership Fund spent about $40,000 on ads attacking Steve Bullock in Montana—ads designed to tarnish Bullock in his home state should he decide to drop the presidential race and return to Montana to run for the Senate.

Table 3: Groups Sponsoring More than $10K in Television Advertising

SponsorAiringsCost ($)Affiliation
Numbers include ads aired on national network, national cable and
broadcast television between January 6 and September 12, 2019.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis
by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Need to Impeach6,4343,030,130Anti-Trump
Act Now on Climate786232,520Pro-Inslee
Judicial Crisis Network40152,440Anti-Democratic
Senate Leadership Fund32742,680Anti-Bullock
National Biodiesel Board4311,960Anti-Trump

Group-sponsored advertising in the presidential race is down by quite a bit compared to 2015, perhaps signaling changing attitudes among Democratic candidates on the use of outside money. By this point in 2015, $15.6 million had been spent by groups, with the largest group sponsor being a super PAC in support of John Kasich.

Viewers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, have been exposed to the most candidate-sponsored ads, with over 5,000 presidential ads having aired there. Tom Steyer has sponsored 3,040 of those ads. Other Iowa media markets make the top 5, which includes Des Moines, Sioux City and Davenport, all dominated by Steyer. The only non-Iowa market to make the top 5 is Las Vegas. Markets in South Carolina and New Hampshire have also seen television advertising (the Boston media market serves part of New Hampshire). Steyer is the only candidate on the air in Nevada. Tulsi Gabbard has spread her ads around Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, but she hasn’t been on the air in those places since early August.

Table 4: Television Markets with Most Candidate-Sponsored Presidential Ads

Media MarketAiringsCost ($)
Numbers include candidate-sponsored ads aired on national network, national cable
and broadcast television between January 6 and September 12, 2019.
As is typical with WMP's reporting of candidate-sponsored TV ad activity,
these numbers do not include ads aired by leadership PACs or joint fundraising committees.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Cedar Rapids, IA5,372977,240
Des Moines, IA4,9861,373,280
Sioux City, IA3,522645,060
Las Vegas, NV (all Steyer ads)3,5142,129,050
Davenport, IA3,441700,070
Columbia, SC2,867504,310
Charleston, SC2,590392,000
Boston, MA2,4301,716,370
Greenville, SC2,278685,950
Reno, NV (all Steyer)1,233131,710
Manchester, NH1,186428,830
National Cable5721,635,960
Myrtle Beach, SC (all Gabbard)13921,300
National Network (all Trump)2119,400

“Although television advertising has taken a back seat to digital at this point in the presidential nomination campaign, we expect TV advertising to ramp up as we get closer to voting in various states,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Typically, TV ads are used for persuasion, which is much more important closer to Election Day than it is now.”

2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates Avoid Attacking Each Other in TV Ads

So far, over 99 percent of the TV ads aired by Democratic candidate sponsors have been positive. The highly positive nature of advertising is not unexpected given the early nature of the campaign, but notably none of Tom Steyer’s nearly 27,000 airings mention his opponents for the Democratic nomination.

About the Data

For the television ad totals, data reported here are from Kantar/CMAG and do not cover local cable buys, only broadcast television, national network and national cable advertising.

For Facebook ads, data come from daily or weekly aggregated reports. Aggregate report entries are provided for each page name and disclaimer combination. In early January 2019, Facebook did not include page IDs (a unique identifier) for each entry in the aggregate report. Because pages can have the same name, a unique identifier for each page would be required to definitively identify an aggregate report entry, which Facebook has declined to provide going backward. Therefore, we did our best to associate each entry in the January 5, 2019, report with a page ID, which we had access to through the library API. There may be some slippage if two pages associated with presidential candidates had identical names and disclaimers, but we believe these instances are rare for the set of ads covered in this report. We looked for pages attached to each candidate, including possible leadership PACs, joint-fund-raising committees, and affiliated Senate/House pages. To calculate our totals for this report, we used the 1/5/19 report and merged on the 9/12/19 report totals. In each report, Facebook provides the to-date totals for each row, which covers the full archive back to May 2018. We subtracted the 1/5/19 total from the 9/12/19 total to get the spending by page and disclaimer for January 6 through September 12, 2019. Pages can sponsor ads that are funded by different entities. We made the assumption that all spending by federal office-holders running for president in 2019 (e.g., Kamala Harris) was in support of their presidential campaign, even if some spending was reported from their House or Senate page or leadership PAC, especially because many of the leadership PAC spending occurred on the same pages as the campaign spending. We separate Tom Steyer’s totals from Need to Impeach because he is not currently an elected official, and Need to Impeach ran anti-Trump ads before Steyer announced his run for the Democratic nomination (Need to Impeach is also a super PAC). Advertising run from pages known to be associated with presidential candidates are included even in instances where the ads ran without an appropriate disclaimer.

In Table A (click here to download), we list the page names/disclaimer rows from the aggregated reports that we identified for this report. It is possible that we missed some spending from a Facebook page affiliated with a candidate running for office. This is exacerbated by the absence of EIN or FEC identifiers in the Facebook reports.

For Google ads, we downloaded the weekly reports from the platform’s Transparency Report. Google only includes spending in federal races and only includes weekly totals but lists the sponsor’s EIN or FEC committee ID. We searched the list of advertisers for presidential candidates and affiliated leadership PACs and joint-fund-raising committees. We made the same assumption as with the Facebook data about any spending from House and Senate campaign committees by declared presidential candidates. As of September 16, 2019, Google’s transparency report was only updated through the week starting August 25, 2019; therefore we can only report on Google spending from January 6, 2019 through August 31, 2019.

In Table B (click here to download), we list the advertiser name for all entries used in this report to calculate Google candidate totals.

About This Report

The Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) provides real-time tracking and analysis of political advertising in an effort to increase transparency in elections. Housed in Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) – part of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life – the Wesleyan Media Project is the successor to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which disbanded in 2009. It is directed by Erika Franklin Fowler, associate professor of government at Wesleyan University, Michael M. Franz, professor of government at Bowdoin College and Travis N. Ridout, professor of political science at Washington State University. WMP personnel include Laura Baum (Project Manager), Colleen Bogucki (Project Coordinator), Pavel Oleinikov (Associate Director, QAC), and Courtney Page-Tan (Post-Doctoral Fellow).

The Wesleyan Media Project is supported by Wesleyan University, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Democracy Fund. WMP is partnering again this year with the Center for Responsive Politics, to provide added information on outside group disclosure.

Periodic releases of data will be posted on the project’s website and dispersed via Twitter @wesmediaproject. To be added to our email update list, click here.

For more information contact:
Lauren Rubenstein, lrubenstein@wesleyan.edu,
(860) 685-3813 or (203) 644-7144

About Wesleyan University
Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., is known for the excellence of its academic and co-curricular programs. With more than 2,900 undergraduates and 200 graduate students, Wesleyan is dedicated to providing a liberal arts education characterized by boldness, rigor and practical idealism. For more, visit wesleyan.edu.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

About Democracy Fund
Created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, Democracy Fund is a foundation helping to ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Democracy Fund has invested more than $125 million in support of a healthy, resilient, and diverse democracy with a particular focus on modern elections, effective governance, and a vibrant public square.

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