Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
12 November 2020updated 28 Aug 2021 9:37pm

How Facebook ad spend predicted the US 2020 election

New Statesman analysis shows Donald Trump failed to win in key states where Joe Biden outspent him on social media.  

By Michael Goodier

Facebook advertising spend proved a better predictor of US presidential election results in swing states than TV spending this year, according to New Statesman analysis.

Figures compiled from the New York University Ad Observatory, using data from Facebook’s Ad Library, show that, while Donald Trump spent more across the nation overall, Joe Biden outspent him in many of the battleground states that last week turned blue.

 

Biden outspent Trump in several key states, as defined by the Cook Political Report, many of which proved decisive on the night – including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Trump managed to hold on to most of the key states in which he outspent Biden on Facebook: Texas, Ohio, Florida and Iowa – as well as holding on to Maine’s 2nd congressional district (he also outspent Biden in the state overall, though it wasn’t considered a battleground state).

[See also: From Arizona to Virginia: the US 2020 election Swing States]

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

While Biden still managed to win in some key states in which Trump spent more on Facebook advertising, Trump didn’t win any states in which he was outspent. In Nebraska, Trump outspent Biden by his second narrowest margin, and while he won the state, the Democrats managed to flip the second congressional district.

 

The data also suggests that Biden’s Facebook ads may have been better targeted. A story in October by The Markup found that Biden had been paying an average $25.53 per ad, compared to $23.09 for Trump (the New Statesman found similar figures).

That discrepancy increases in swing states, suggesting it is likely down to the fact that Biden was targeting his ads at more specific groups of voters – which increases the cost of each Facebook advertisement and implies his ad strategy was more nuanced.

Content from our partners
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people
How to power the electric vehicle revolution

Facebook ad spending was a better predictor of results than TV

Figures from Advertising Analytics – detailing ad spending in the last five weeks of the campaign – show a much looser relationship between who won a key state and candidate who spent more on TV ads, than between Facebook spending and the eventual winner.

Looking at figures from both main presidential campaigns, as well as Democratic/Republican National Convention-sponsored ads, Biden outspent Trump in all key states bar two – yet Trump still managed to win in Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Texas, and looks likely to take North Carolina.

 

Of course, with such a small number of key states it is hard to conclusively prove a trend – especially with some states still to be called, and results yet to be validated in any one state. But the figures we do have at least imply that Facebook adverts are becoming just as – if not more influential – than their traditional counterparts.

That is reinforced by a survey from the Pew Research Centre – which found that 18 per cent of Americans now get their news through social media – lower than the share who use news websites and apps (25 per cent), but more than the number who get their news from cable (16 per cent) or local television (16 per cent).

Careful targeting of online ads likely helped Joe Biden into the White House and Trump to outperform expectations in states like Florida. Meanwhile, thanks to both parties’ campaigning, Facebook’s bank balance increased by a not-insignificant $179m since July.