What the Media Missed About Trump's Digital Operation

Think the media have figured out President Trump’s 2020 game plan for re-election? Their latest analysis of his campaign tactics suggests otherwise. 

Like it or not, the Trump campaign is a digital powerhouse that was able to win the election in 2016 with far less money than the competition. The campaign invested in digital early to understand who Trump voters were, what platforms they were spending the majority of their time on, what issues they cared about the most, and how to get the most engagement possible. A whopping 44% of all of the campaign’s ad spending was online, more than 10 times that of other Republican campaigns and six times that of Democratic campaigns. 

They haven't stopped the digital spending either. The Trump campaign is outspending the top Democratic candidates by 9 to 1 on Google and Facebook. It is an unprecedented level of investment this early in the election season.   

Axios reported the president’s campaign spent 44% of its Facebook ad budget on the 65+ demographic in the first quarter of 2019, and 54% of these ads were on immigration issues. The report focused on Trump’s need to win older voters by large margins since he performs poorly with younger voters. Axios mentioned that campaigns typically target older voters via TV buys and direct mail. "We assume Trump is making a huge play to hold an advantage he had in 2016 with older white voters,” Ben Coffey Clark, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive who ran the analysis, told Axios. 

The Hill noted the major gap in spending percentage on seniors compared to that of Democratic challengers. Salon suggested the Trump campaign was investing so heavily on Facebook and targeting seniors because seniors are more susceptible to falling for fake news. Another liberal outlet mused the campaign may be aiming to make up for losses with seniors in the midterms.  

Even Stephen Colbert poked fun at the campaign’s ads. But what almost all of the media coverage missed is this simple fact: Not all campaign advertising is intended to persuade voters. With roughly 500 days until Election Day, the true objective is to draw small-dollar donors.  

The Trump campaign understood that seniors are much more likely to click on a political ad than younger voters, which allowed the campaign to collect data and amass a massive list of online supporters to then solicit for contributions. So, what were the results? 

President Trump raked in $30 million in the first quarter of 2019. Even more impressive than the total fundraising haul, according to the Trump campaign 99% of donations were under $200. The average donation is just over $34, leaving plenty of room for the campaign to go back to this online fundraising base to ask for more over the next 18 months. 

The media missed the point of the Trump campaign’s tactics in the first quarter of this year. If they continue to misinterpret the intention of political operatives, they may be as surprised in November of 2020 as they were in 2016.

Daniel Bassali is the vice president for digital at Go Big Media. He previously served as campaign manager to Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia.

This article is published on realclearpolitics.com