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In the past couple of months, political media operatives have debated whether the coronavirus pandemic is a relative advantage for President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden.
The usual answer is that President Trump’s reelection campaign is the beneficiary, even if it faces challenges during the pandemic. If mobile communications and digital media are more important factors this year due to COVID-19, then it’s logical that the candidate with a larger online following and advertising operation would benefit.
But new factors are hard to quantify. It remains to be seen if Republicans can shift their historical advantage in turning out voters on Election Day to voting by mail or if Democrats can exploit widespread disapproval of the administration’s coronavirus response when their candidate is stuck inside.
The digital machine
President Trump’s most-cited advantage is his digital platform.
Without campaign events, digital media is a more important way to reach people and get out the vote. And Trump reaches many, many more people online. He has 80.1 million Twitter followers, to Biden’s 5.5 million. On Facebook, the difference is 29.4 million to 2 million, and Trump has 431,000 YouTube subscribers to Biden’s 56,000.
With candidates figuring out how to hold virtual rallies and volunteer events, a large base on Facebook Live and YouTube helps, said Megan Clasen, VP of digital at the political agency GMMB.
Real-world rallies gained attendance because people brought friends and family, Clasen said. That doesn’t happen as much with virtual events, and when it does that social element often comes from social media.
Both campaigns have advertised less in April and May, but in the past month Trump has nearly tripled Biden in Google and Facebook advertising, and Biden hasn’t booked a new TV or radio ad since mid-March.
A campaign without rallies
Biden is known for “retail politics” – shaking hands and kissing babies – but both candidates suffer from the loss of in-person campaign events.
The president had much larger crowds. Trump’s campaign manager often tweeted snippets of voter mobile data collected during rallies. Those events were a big part of the Trump campaign effort and helped shape media narratives, according to one conservative media consultant.
Biden is also forced to take a hands-off approach to the political news cycle. On Memorial Day, he made his first public appearance since mid-March. But since Biden doesn’t attract large rallies, Democrats are more comfortable with him staying home and competing on the airwaves.
Democratic candidates benefit more from celebrities helping to turn out supporters. The coronavirus crisis defangs that liberal advantage somewhat, though not entirely. Bernie Sanders officially endorsed Biden last month in an Instagram Live stream with rapper Cardi B.
But the trend is tough for Democrats, who must figure out how to make that cache work when they can’t share a stage with celebrities.
“Bon Jovi isn’t coming out to do a concert for Biden,” said Jordan Lieberman, VP and GM of politics and public affairs at a4 Media, Altice’s ad-targeting subsidiary.
The cash crunch
The biggest structural difference is the Republican Party’s cash reserve. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have more than a quarter-billion dollars on hand.
The Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee were almost even with Republicans in April fundraising, each side clearing $60 million. But Democrats have $103 million cash on hand, plus the DNC has millions of dollars in debt.
The Trump campaign’s fundraising haul predates the coronavirus. But that cash advantage matters more now, because this is a tough environment for fundraising.
Get out the vote
Republicans expect new electoral dynamics to tilt the campaign in their favor.
Voting by mail will be an advantage for the president, since the campaign has a better data and voter-targeting program and spends more on digital ads, said Reid Vineis, VP of digital at the conservative agency Majority Strategies. “That means Republicans will be able to find the right people and message to them more effectively.”
Mail-in voting has been a booster for Democrats in the past, because it’s common in liberal states such as California, Washington and Oregon. But the post-COVID-19 situation is a disadvantage for liberals, according to three Democratic campaign consultants, including one with the Biden campaign.
“Getting people out to vote in cities will be more difficult than less dense areas,” said one Democratic consultant. Aside from more severe lockdowns and social distancing in cities, coronavirus precautions have become a political football, and polling shows enthusiasm to vote and likelihood to leave their home to vote is higher with conservatives right now.
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Choose your battleground: presidential or Senate races?
Do Democrats have tunnel vision at the top of the ticket, when there could be wiser down-ballot investments?
Sources tell AdExchanger that state-level candidates and even Senate races may be lost because PACs are so focused on the path to the presidency.
Priorities USA, the largest liberal super PAC, has run attack ads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina throughout the primaries to set the groundwork for the general election.
But winning purple general election states isn’t the same as winning the Senate battlegrounds. Democrats can flip Senate seats in Colorado, Maine, South Carolina and two seats up for grabs in Georgia. But those aren’t priorities for major liberal super PACs.
Democrats, however, need super PAC support, particularly to unseat incumbents, because fundraising is low right now and Republicans have reliable, deep-pocketed donors.
“There’s an understanding that Republican senators will match spending or get money when they need it,” said one Democratic consultant.
For instance, Beto O’Rourke outraised Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, by $70.2 million to $26.4 million during his unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid. But O’Rourke’s fundraising advantage didn’t translate to an actual spending advantage, because Republican donors and party committees always stepped in to match any ad buy.
But spending more at the Senate and state level is a safer bet, even if people are rightfully obsessed with the presidential race, said Conversant director of politics and advocacy Jeff Cosgrove. The presidential race will be a tough toss-up no matter what, he said, but if Democrats flipped the Senate and held the House, they would control legislation and judicial appointments.
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• The political trade magazine Campaigns & Elections ponders whether 2020 could be the year of the digital political staffer, with perspectives from young digital directors. “The era of the high-profile campaign manager or star media consultant is giving way to one where digital practitioners on campaigns up and down the ballot are claiming the spotlight.”
• In the past few weeks, Biden has made virtual appearances with a string of potential VP picks. Georgia politician Stacey Abrams appeared with Biden on MSNBC. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., filmed a campaign ad. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared on the campaign podcast. “With limited physical meetings occurring, the more phone chats and virtual events he can do will be the only way to figure out who he clicks with best,” Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo tells The Hill.