29th October 2020

Trump and Biden’s divergent digital strategies

2020 has been a year like no other, and it stands to reason that this year’s US election will be no different.

The pandemic has greatly reduced Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s opportunities for connecting with voters on the ground, pressing the flesh, and creating the ever-adorable baby-cuddling photo opportunities.

But even without Covid-19, this election cycle was never going to be normal because in many respects the 2016 election changed the face of American politics. It further deepened the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats and sowed unprecedented mistrust, ensuring that future presidential candidates would need to get creative with their digital campaigning.

Uncle Joe

The candidates’ campaigns have been largely reflective of the personas they are selling to the public. Joe Biden initially focused on traditional media advertising, with social and digital media taking a back seat. In recent months, however, the strategy has shifted significantly.

At almost 78, Joe Biden is the oldest presidential candidate in history, and as such his campaign team has made a concerted effort to keep the former vice-president from making too many unnecessary appearances.

As a result of this, the Biden campaign has bought ad space on the homepages of CNN, Fox News, DailyMail.com, and others, as well as devoting a planned 20% of its budget to digital ad buys in the autumn months alone.

The pandemic has allowed the Biden campaign to build a digital narrative grounded in wholesome messaging and feel-good content that highlights the steady crisis leadership he promises, and his empathetic, ice cream-loving, blue-collar persona.

The Biden campaign’s digital strategy aims to raise the tone of conversation and to avoid the back-and-forth, rough-and-tumble online presence of President Trump. This was exemplified when his campaign pulled all attack ads during the President’s hospitalisation due to Covid-19.

Rough and tumble

While the Biden strategy aims to push feel-good content, the Trump approach appears to be to relish any opportunity to run ‘uncivil’ attack ads. This, of course, is not a new strategy for the Trump campaign.

During the 2016 election, Trump’s team ran a barrage of ads attacking the reputation and credibility of Hillary Clinton. A similar strategy has been employed in 2020 against Biden, while other ads have touted the President’s record.

As in 2016, the Trump re-election campaign launched a strong digital campaign. The President has used his own Twitter channel to communicate directly with his base, while the campaign has used Facebook to target undecided voters. In fact, the Trump campaign spent over $17 million in online advertising in September alone and has invested more than $170 million in digital ads across Facebook and Google since 2019.

The cult of conspiracy theory

Although digital spend plays a significant role in how the candidates are perceived online, there are forces beyond their control that could have a substantial effect on voters.

Since both Twitter and Facebook have taken steps to tackle election and pandemic misinformation, all advertising on these platforms is now subject to tighter fact checks. Both have deleted posts and suspended or restricted accounts deemed to be spreading misleading claims or fake news. This clamp-down has resulted in many users turning to private Facebook groups.

In 2018, groups like QAnon began to flood social media with conspiracy theories in which Donald Trump is a saviour-like figure, central to saving children of the world from an evil global cabal. Sound outlandish? Well, one in four social media users who have heard of the group would disagree.

QAnon conspiracy theories have gained such momentum that fringe, online conversation has become a mainstream talking point among voters, with supporters attending protests and Trump rallies. There are also at least a dozen candidates running for Congress who have expressed their support for QAnon theories.

The final week

In the final week of the election, both campaigns are expected to throw immense amounts of money at their digital advertising; the Trump campaign alone vowed to spend $55 million in the final two weeks.

However, Twitter continues its 2019 ban on political advertising and Facebook has committed to not accepting any new political ads in the week before election day. For the Trump campaign, the lack of Facebook advertising opportunities may be a loss, but that doesn’t mean that homepage ad buys won’t be fully utilised.

So, what can the online behaviour of each campaign tell us about turnout on election day? Realistically, very little. Although national polling shows Biden leading Trump, nothing is guaranteed until every vote is counted. Social media echo chambers and projective polls cannot predict how this election will play out, so grab the popcorn (and maybe the paracetamol): this will be a drawn-out process.

About the author

Amy helps clients build brand awareness and connect with their audience through social and digital platforms. From day-to-day community management and digital content creation to strategic messaging and social media ad campaigns, she finds the best way to communicate online. Before 360, Amy worked in the telecoms sector.


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