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Joe Biden is spending a lot of money on Facebook — to tell older voters about himself

He’s advertising to people who already know him and are likelier to support him.

Joe Biden Speaks To Striking Stop & Shop Workers In Massachusetts
Trump was eclipsing other 2020 candidates in Facebook spend. Now Biden is.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Joe Biden is spending a lot of money on Facebook — so much that he’s even surpassing prolific social media ad spender President Donald Trump. And while other Democratic candidates are invoking specific issues and policy proposals to reach supporters in their online ads, the former vice president is largely talking about, well, himself.

After months of Trump lapping 2020 Democrats in terms of Facebook and Google ad spend — in March, his reelection campaign was spending about twice as much as all the Democrats running combined — the tides are turning. Now, since the start of the year, Democrats have spent a combined $13 million on Facebook and Google ads, compared to $8 million from Trump, according to data from the Democratic communications and strategy firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. And since announcing his election bid in late April, Biden is leading the way — and outspending the president, $1.2 million to about $900,000.

The former vice president’s spending suggests that his campaign, like Trump’s and others, sees targeted advertising on platforms such as Facebook as a wise way to spend money heading into 2020. (Digital ad spend in elections has grown in recent cycles, though it still lags behind traditional formats, such as television and direct mail.) A late entrant into the race, Biden has ramped up his operation fast, and he’s leaning into social media ads to gather emails, donations, and information from voters. (Biden inherited former President Barack Obama’s highly valued email list, but given that the last time Obama ran was 2012, it’s not necessarily up to date.)

And in a political climate where the left’s voting base is applauding small-dollar donations more than typical high-dollar fundraisers, digital fundraising through targeted ads helps Biden try to demonstrate he can compete with small-dollar juggernauts such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Sanders received 1 million individual donations within two months of his campaign launch and has carried over from his 2016 bid an extensive grassroots network that other candidates can’t rival. Earlier this month, the Biden campaign announced that 97 percent of its donations were under $200 and that two-thirds of all its donors were new to its email list. It’s an attempt to show that Biden, a longtime member of the Democratic establishment, has grassroots support as well.

How Biden is going about his social media ad spend, and whom he’s trying to reach, says a lot about the type of voter coalition he’s trying to build.

Joe Biden is talking about himself to older people on Facebook

Biden, like Trump, appears to be targeting the over-65 crowd with his campaign’s Facebook ads. But instead of discussing specific issues, like Trump is with his immigration-focused ads, Biden is largely focusing on himself.

According to BPI’s tool that tracks digital ad spending by presidential candidates, nearly half of Biden’s Facebook spending from April 27 to May 18 was spent on ads aimed at people between the ages of 45 and 64, and 32 percent of spending was aimed at those over 65. Just 17 percent of his Facebook ad spend went toward reaching the 25-to-44 age group. It’s comparable to what Trump and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) are doing, age-wise, though both are spending more on the younger age group and less on the oldest group than Biden.

Sanders, on the other hand, is taking a very different approach. Nearly half of his Facebook spend is geared toward people between the ages of 25 and 44, 28 percent is going toward the 45-to-65 group, and just 15 percent is aimed at those over 65. Sanders is even spending 9 percent of his Facebook ad budget on people between the ages of 13 and 24 — in other words, some Americans who can’t even vote yet.

Facebook ad spend by demographic, April 27 - May 18, 2019.
Facebook ad spend by demographic, April 27 to May 18, 2019.
Bully Pulpit Interactive

As Gideon Resnick at the Daily Beast pointed out, the explanation for Biden’s focus on older voters is likely pretty simple: Americans age 50 or older make up the majority of the Democratic Party. And older people, who are increasingly easy to reach on Facebook, tend to vote more. Biden’s support tends to be stronger among older voters as well, so he’s reaching out not only to people who vote more but also to people who are likelier to vote for him.

But what Biden is talking to voters about on Facebook is particularly interesting. BPI’s analysis has also looked at the topics of the ads to figure out what messages campaigns are hitting people with. Trump, for example, has spent a lot on ads pertaining to immigration and fake news. (His campaign has also, oddly enough, spent a lot on ads mentioning birthdays.) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is spending on ads mentioning issues such as child care, college affordability, and taxes. Harris has run ads focused on reproductive rights, criminal justice, and health care.

Biden, however, is taking a different approach. His campaign is spending resources collecting names through surveys, for example, asking people if they agree with the Republican tax cut bill. Or he’s just asking for money directly. According to the Biden campaign, they’ve seen a lot of success with appeals such as a video from the candidate’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, asking people to chip in, and another video shot from an iPhone of Biden asking for donations.

What sets Biden apart is the fact that he’s already a known commodity among Democrats.

“His relatively issue-free strategy actually makes a lot of sense,” Daniel Scarvalone, the senior director of research and data at BPI, said, noting that Biden is the most recognized name in the Democratic primary and his personal favorability numbers are higher than other 2020 contenders. “He doesn’t have as much pressure as the other candidates to make his case on the issues to form that connection prior to making an ask.”

Biden’s online strategy in a way mirrors his offline strategy: He’s a known quantity, and he currently has a decent lead in the polls. (It’s early, and that obviously could change.) As Vox’s Matt Yglesias recently explained, it has allowed him to take a more laid-back approach to campaigning and to steer clear of thorny issues.

Biden’s digital campaign strategy, explained in a day

Vox reached out to Biden’s campaign to ask how they’re approaching digital ad spend, since they appear to have leaned so heavily into it so quickly.

“We use tools like Facebook and YouTube to reach the most primary voters the most times a day in the most targeted and creative ways possible,” Brandon English, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said in a statement. “We’re continuing to see Vice President Biden’s message resonate all across the country and it’s our job to find compelling ways to reach voters where they are and how they prefer to consume information.”

The campaign detailed their strategy around the kickoff rally in Philadelphia on May 18.

Ahead of the rally, they sent out some initial messaging to a small segment of Democrats who live within a 5-mile radius of Philadelphia with a short video about why Biden is running for president, and deployed a Spanish-language video to Latino voters. They also tested Facebook and Instagram ads that sent voters to a landing page to sign up for the rally and, once getting their information, asked them to volunteer. During the rally, they launched a text message campaign to encourage new potential supporters to sign up. That helped drive fundraising and got further contact information for future asks for volunteers and donations.

These tactics aren’t unique to Biden’s campaign; they’re strategies many candidates employ. But the size of his investment demonstrates that the campaign is committed to the digital field.

Biden doesn’t have the grassroots strength of Sanders or Warren, but he has the budget to try to make up for it.

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