Joe Biden’s campaign has moved to capitalize on the enormous energy reflected in the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality with the biggest online spending of his candidacy, pouring nearly $5 million into Facebook ads alone in recent days.
Biden spent about the same amount on Facebook over just a few days last week as he had in the first 10 months of his candidacy. On Thursday alone, he spent $1.6 million on the platform, more than triple President Donald Trump’s single-day record, according to company data. The staggering sums are a sure sign, according to digital strategists, that people are responding to Biden’s ads — and donating, too.
The most heavily run Facebook ads ask people to sign a petition “condemning” Trump, and feature a photo of the president walking past a line of security officers in riot gear outside the White House last week. They accuse the president of fanning “the flames of white supremacy, hatred and violence.” Other petition ads feature images of sign-waving protesters outside the U.S. Capitol.
The initial wave of Biden ads set a goal of persuading 1 million people to sign the petition; that goal had jumped to 2.5 million by Saturday, with current ads suggesting that more than 1.2 million people have already signed.
The ads are running nationally, not just in battleground states, and appear intended mostly to harvest the names, email addresses, ZIP codes and mobile numbers of potential supporters. This information is very valuable: Once these new supporters are in Biden’s database, the campaign can return to them to ask for money over and over through November.
Notably, Biden’s current ads are targeting a much younger demographic than he did in much of 2019, when his audience skewed far older than his leading rivals’. Nearly three-quarters of the target audience for one iteration of the petition ad, which the campaign has spent nearly $100,000 on, is voters under 35, for instance.
Biden’s current Facebook spending far outpaces Trump’s high points during the height of impeachment and Biden’s previous peak when he seized control of the Democratic nominating contest on Super Tuesday in early March. Until last week, the former vice president’s previous high was spending $365,000 in a day, according to Facebook’s ad archive.
“It’s great that the Biden campaign is seeing the activism that is going on in the streets and looking to capitalize on that online,” said Eric Ming, who was the director of digital and paid media on Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign.
The only Biden spending detailed publicly is on Facebook. But a Biden campaign official said that online spending was up sharply across many digital platforms, including more than $1 million on Google in the past seven days. That sum amounts to roughly 15% of what the Biden campaign had spent cumulatively in the preceding 13 months. (Facebook publicly discloses spending data far faster than Google.)
Moments of widespread and organic interest in political activism are relatively rare, and are big opportunities for campaigns to build their lists of supporters. In 2018, Sen. Kamala Harris added 1 million people to her email list during the Supreme Court confirmation fight of Brett Kavanaugh. The women’s march the day after Trump’s inauguration was a similarly major episode.
The killing of George Floyd, a black man whose death in the custody of white Minneapolis police officers sparked the recent protests, appears to be another such juncture.
“This is a seminal moment,” said Jason Rosenbaum, a top digital strategist on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and a former official at Google. He said that rapid spending spikes like Biden’s are nearly always “an indication that grassroots donors are donating money at extremely high levels.”
Facebook has faced complaints for its willingness to let Trump post inflammatory content on its social network as Twitter recently began placing a disclaimer on some of Trump’s posts. Some Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout in protest.
But the site remains highly lucrative for political campaigns of both parties and draws much of the online advertising from both Democrats and Republicans.
When organized campaigns see significant and near-instant returns on the advertising dollars they are spending, they keep spending more until the response rates decrease.
“They are likely raising significant amounts of money,” Rosenbaum said.
Biden is not the only political figure pushing more money into Facebook amid the mass protests.
Candace Owens, the black conservative activist and commentator, posted a Facebook video last week in which she said she refused to see Floyd as a martyr, which was the highest-performing post on the site at one point and has been viewed more than 80 million times. She also spent $213,000 in the past week promoting her page, peaking at $100,070 on Saturday.
Jaime Harrison, a black Democrat who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has spent nearly $500,000 in Facebook ads in the past seven days.
The Congressional Black Caucus PAC spent $222,000 last week — more than one-third of its total spending in the past two years. The group featured the Graham and Harrison race prominently in some of the ads it was spending the most to promote.