Donald Trump is the most prolific Facebook advertiser this midterm season

Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Donald Trump is not running for office in the midterm elections. And yet, judged by the number of Facebook ads politicians have placed in the run-up to the Nov. 6 vote, he is the most prolific campaigner.

The ads, placed between Sept. 9 and 22 (a period analyzed by New York University data scientists for a new report), were largely to invite Facebook users to go to rallies or fundraiser events. The Trump team wasn’t using the president’s name to promote Republicans on the midterm ballot, Laura Edelson, one of the researchers, told Quartz—the ads focused on the president. During those two weeks, Trump’s personal Facebook page placed nearly 10,000 ads on the site. The researchers say the data they were able to gather is “fairly complete,” although not without limitations, due to the way Facebook’s political ad archive currently works.

The direct reason for this ad blitz is a social media strategy called “microtargeting,” which aims each ad to a very specific, small group of people. The Trump camp effectively used this strategy during the 2016 campaign. Campaigns build lists of people with their contact information from rallies, emails, and other sources. It’s possible, said Damon McCoy, one of the study’s authors, that the Trump campaign has many of these lists, and may be using them help it target either specific groups on Facebook, or find a similar audience through Facebook’s advertising tools.

Since Facebook launched its political ads archive earlier this year, there’s a way to assess just how much the Trump team relies on microtargeting: 85% of its ads were placed on Facebook using this strategy. This share has increased since the researchers last ran a similar analysis, in the early summer.

The top spender on political ads for the same period (because Trump’s prolificacy does not translate into most money spent), used the opposite strategy: expensive ads that reach a large number of people. That spender was Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for the senate.

Trump took out about 9,880 ads on Facebook during this period, which had a minimum of more than 7 million impressions (so, roughly speaking, how many times an ad has been displayed) for which he paid more than $110,000. O’Rourke had just 520 ads, which had a minimum of just under 20 million impressions, which cost his campaign more than $400,000.

Why is Trump blitzing Facebook with his own ads? It may be part of a strategy to fire up his loyal base to vote for Republicans in the midterms, by focusing on the guy they already love. However, the ads often included a request for a donation, said Edelson, making a simpler explanation more likely: It’s another way to build up the 2020 presidential campaign war chest.

Trump is already significantly ahead of any potential Democratic candidate in terms of fundraising for 2020. His team is working hard to widen that gap.