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Trump is using impeachment to collect new supporters with Facebook ads

AP/Jeffrey McWhorter
Trump's Facebook ads are mining for MAGA fans the campaign doesn't know yet.
  • Jeremy B. Merrill
By Jeremy B. Merrill

Investigative reporter

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Even if the impeachment inquiry in the House poses a threat to Trump’s presidency, his campaign has sensed that it’s also an opportunity: an opportunity to locate his supporters.

The bulk of the money the Trump campaign has spent on Facebook ads mentioning impeachment has been for “prospecting,” meant to suss out people who are likely supporters—or donors—but who aren’t already in the campaign’s databases. 

Only a small minority of the spending on impeachment-related ads is for direct fundraising messages, such as “we are sending him a list of EVERY AMERICAN PATRIOT who contributes and joins the Official Impeachment Defense Taskforce. DONATE NOW.” And an even smaller portion was spent trying to persuade voters swing voters by telling them about something Joe Biden didn’t actually do or say. (The Trump campaign says the ad is accurate.)

This focus on prospecting is according to Quartz’s review of previously-unreported data showing the Trump campaign’s own categorization of the ads.

Of at least $1.7 million spent by Trump since September 24 on ads about impeachment, at least $1.59 million was earmarked for ads designated as prospecting ads. (Facebook reports per-ad spending in broad ranges.) The ads were paid for by The Make America Great Again Committee, which is a joint fundraising committee run by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. The Trump campaign declined to comment when asked about Quartz’s analysis.

And most of that was spent on ads that the Trump campaign targeted with “behavioral targeting”—that is, showing it to ads to people whose web browsing history Facebook thought indicated that they were “interested in Donald Trump” or “interested in Mike Pence.”

Annie Levene, a partner at Democratic digital strategy firm Rising Tide Interactive,  speculates that the goal of this targeting method is to find people who “like Donald Trump on Facebook, but they’re not subscribed to his email list.” On Facebook, she says, “you can upload your email list and then ‘negative target’ to suppress everyone that you have” in your database—to ensure the “prospecting” ad spending isn’t wasted on die-hard supporters who already donate.

A “prospecting” ad run by the Trump campaign starting October 9.

“This looks like a direct mail campaign,” said Dave Karpf, a professor and political scientist at George Washington University, who reviewed the campaign spending and purpose data for Quartz. Citing the long tradition of direct mail campaigns, largely by the right wing, he says the campaign appears to be “trying to identify people who will eventually give money or buy merchandise,” often at great cost, he said.

Online advertising technology has advanced far beyond charging for just ad views or clicks. Instead, advertisers can pay based on various optimization goals, such as completed purchases (or donations) or videos watched for more than two seconds. Facebook uses its machine-learning techniques to maximize the advertiser’s chosen goal, predicting which users are most likely to, say, make a donation, and then showing them the ad.

The Make America Great Again Committee’s impeachment-related ads aimed at fundraising were optimized for conversions–meaning that after seeing the ad, users did something off of Facebook, like making a purchase or a donation. 

But according to the data reviewed by Quartz, most of the prospecting ads, most of which are aimed at supporters who are not yet known to the campaign, were optimized for click rate–getting a user to click to a page with a name like “The Official Impeachment Poll” or “Stand with Trump.”

“Getting them to click and learn more … I think that’s what I would classify as prospecting. So long as they, within the Facebook universe, know that this person has clicked on it, you can then take that and retarget just that crowd,” Karpf explains, showing more ads to the people who clicked. Facebook’s “pixel” tracker allows website owners to target ads to Facebook users who’ve visited their website, even without knowing that visitor’s identity.

“That’s someone that you can spend more money on to get them to take the next step. What you’re trying to do is narrow down to the people that you have any chance” of getting a donation, he said.

Shannon McGregor, a professor at the University of Utah who studies online political communication, says the ads serve an additional purpose to “hit home some of the talking points for on-the-fence Republicans,” people who “are favorable [towards Trump] but maybe not in the hardcore base,” even if they don’t end up sharing their contact details.

Trump’s campaign spent comparatively little money on its controversial ads that make false claims about Joe Biden—which it designated “awareness” and “persuasion.”

“People are looking at Trump’s spending on Facebook and imagining that he’s finding all these slices of the electorate that he’s going to microtarget and convince to vote for him next time.” 

Based on the spending patterns Quartz identified, Karpf says, “That’s not what they’re doing here.”

Let us know if you know more.

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