Presidential campaigning goes digital as the pandemic forces candidates to get creative

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August 26, 2020

Social media is playing an even more significant role than expected in political campaigns this year. Since rallies, gatherings, and town halls aren’t safe to schedule during the pandemic, political campaigns have looked to digital advertising to make up for lost face-to-face time.

Andrew Arenge, director of operations for Penn's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES) and the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, has been collecting digital advertising data about the 2020 Democratic primary and the use of digital ads as he develops his Master of Liberal Arts capstone. Andrew has been downloading daily data from Facebook on how much candidates spend on advertising. He says, “the Trump campaign was really good with Facebook ads in 2016 and that potentially was what could have made the difference for them. There's also been a lot of discussion amongst tech companies to be more transparent about who is doing what on their platforms, and I was fascinated to see how this would play out.”

In addition to media spend, Andrew is tracking ad content—whether messages are critical or more fundraising-focused—and where the ads are being shown. Google data allows him to narrow down what ads are being seen in specific ZIP codes throughout the state, which helps Andrew get a solid understanding of what audiences the candidates are targeting. He notes that this type of geotargeting mimics more traditional door-to-door canvassing, and that campaigns have been replicating other in-person events like fundraising through email and online videos.

As election day looms closer, Andrew predicts that candidates will start pushing out messages intended to help voters understand how to cast their ballots, especially as many have decided to turn to voting by mail. He says, “COVID has most certainly impacted every aspect of this election.”

Read more about Andrew’s campaign research at Penn Today >

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