From Home Base to Swing States: The Evolution of Digital Advertising Strategies during the 2020 US Presidential Primary

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterMini-Symposium: America in the 2020 Elections
Mini-Symposium: America in the 2020 Elections
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(2) 460478
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221078046
From Home Base to Swing States: The
Evolution of Digital Advertising Strategies
during the 2020 US Presidential Primary
NaLette M Brodnax
and Piotr Sapiezynski
Political advertising on digital platforms has grown dramatically in recent years as cam paigns embrace new ways of
targeting supporters and potential voters. We examine how political campaign dynamics have evolved in re sponse to the
growth of digital media by analyzing the advertising strategies of US presidential election campaigns during the 2020
primary cycle. To identify geographic and temporal trends, we employ regression analyses of campaign spending across
nearly 600,000 advertisements published on Facebook. We show that campaigns employed a new strategy of targeting
voters in candidateshome states during the invisible primary.In contrast to earlier studies, we f‌ind that home state
targeting is a key strategy for all campaigns, rather than just for politicians with existing political and f‌inancial networks.
While all candidates advertised to their home state, those who dropped out during the invisible primary tended to spend
disproportionately more than the candidates who outlasted them. We also f‌ind that as the f‌irst wave of state caucuses
and primary elections approach, campaigns shift digital ad expenditures to states with early primaries such as Iowa and
New Hampshire and, to a lesser extent, swing states.
political advertising, digital media, campaign strategies, Facebook
In recent years, presidential campaigns in the United States
have shifted from traditional forms of advertisingsuch as
television, radio, and printto digital media. Historically,
campaigns have spent the largest proportion of their ad-
vertising budgets on television commercials, as they are
most effective in reaching a large number of voters.
However, the proportion of ad spending devoted to tele-
vision has declined in each election year since 2008
(Cassino, 2017). Over the same period, the proportion spent
on digital advertising increased from 0.2% to 14.4% in 2016
and was projected to account for 28% of political ad
spending in 2020 (see Figure 1). In fact, the campaign of Joe
Biden, the winner of the Democratic nomination and general
election, spent 30.7% of its ad budget on Facebook and
Google ads alone (Center for Responsive Politics, 2020).
The strategic decisions that campaigns make about
advertisingwhere, when, and how to deploy adsare
critical to understand given their inf‌luence on electoral
outcomes (West, Kern, Alger, and Goggin, 1995).
Digital advertising has a number of advantages over
television and other traditional media. Most importantly, it
allows campaigns to precisely target voters using a range
of tools made available to them by ad platforms. Cam-
paigns can choose the target audience based on their
location, age, and gender, as well as a number of interest-
based parameters such as inferred political alignment.
They can also target particular users based on their per-
sonally identif‌iable information (PII), such as email ad-
dresses, phone numbers or names, as well as promote ads
to other users similar to those whose PII theyve obtained
(Martinez, 2018). By clicking, commenting, or sharing
ads, social media users provide campaigns with imme-
diate feedback on adsability to engage potential voters;
McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, Washington,
Khoury College of Computer Sciences, Northeastern University,
Boston, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
NaLette M Brodnax, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown
University, 37th & O St NW, Old North 406, Washington, DC 20057-
0004, USA.
the campaigns, in turn, can use it to more eff‌iciently al-
locate resources (Erdody, 2018;Kreiss, Lawrence, and
McGregor, 2018). Campaigns can advertise on digital
platforms with relatively small budgets, in contrast to
television advertising where budgets can run from hun-
dreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Due to their
lower cost, digital ads have served as an equalizing force
for long-shot candidates (Christenson, Smidt, and
Panagopoulos, 2014;Paolino and Shaw, 2003).
Despite dramatic growth in digital advertising, scholars
know little about how political campaigns leverage its
unique features. To address this gap, we consider two
questions. First, we investigate whether campaigns target
voters by location in a manner consistent with traditional
forms of advertising. Second, we investigate whether
campaignsadvertising strategies shift over time as they
consider the next immediate need. To answer these
questions, we examine Facebook advertising by US
presidential campaigns during the 2020 primary election
cycle. Facebook accounts for the largest share of digital
advertising due its ease of use and the size of its user base
(Erdody, 2018), and experiments demonstrate that ads
hosted on the platform can lead to increased political
participation (Haenschen and Jennings, 2019). Using the
Facebook Political Advertising Library (Facebook, 2019),
we analyze nearly 600,000 advertisements published by
26 Democratic presidential primary campaigns from 1
January 2019 through Super Tuesday,3 March 2020.
After that date only f‌ive candidates remained in the race
for the nomination. For each ad, the library reports the
estimated number of impressionsthe number of times
that the ad appeared in usersfeeds. In addition to
estimated impressions, the library reports the approximate
cost, as well as the locations and demographic charac-
teristics, such as age and gender, of users who viewed
each ad.
Research on campaign advertising strategies has uti-
lized a range of data sources, the most prominent being
television advertising archives (Fowler, Franz, and
Ridout, 2017;Goldstein, Niebler, Neilheisel, and
Holleque, 2011). These archives collect and encode
data on television ads across 210 designated market areas
(DMAs), including location, cost, and content. Since
some DMAs span multiple states, this data has limited
utility for analyzing advertising strategies by state. Be-
cause states award both primary delegates and general
electors, state-level outcomes are important for answering
questions about presidential campaign strategies. The
Facebook Ad Library provides the same level of detail,
but also allows us to compare state-level advertising by
each campaign over time.
We f‌ind that campaigns introduced a new dynamic
strategy: home state advertising. Early in the primary
season, campaigns spend a larger share of their budget in
the candidates home state where digital advertising helps
to raise money, signal viability, and build momentum. In
contrast to earlier studies showing that candidateshome
states allow them to tap into existing political and f‌inancial
networks, we f‌ind that all candidates advertised heavily in
their home states, regardless of the size of their existing
constituency or network. Candidates who dropped out
during the invisible primary invested much more heavily
in home state advertising than the candidates who out-
lasted themdespite an attempt, we argue, to elevate their
Figure 1. Online advertising has become more central to political advertising budgets, from below 1% in 2008 to 14.4% in 2016. It was
projected to reach 28% in 2020 and surpass the combined spending on political ads in press, radio, direct mail, telemarketing, and
others (Cassino, 2017).
Brodnax and Sapiezynski 461

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