Why you should care
Because the campaign will be won online.
The two-night Democratic presidential debate set off a frenzy of attempts to capitalize on the moment in the sun for a historically large field of presidential hopefuls. Well, most of them anyway. After a Thursday-night performance that saw him get attacked from all corners of the stage …
Joe Biden hasn’t issued a single new paid Facebook ad since the debate began.
That’s as of noon EST on Friday, a crucial time window when the other hopefuls have been pressing their case on America’s dominant social platform. An OZY analysis of Facebook ad data shows that the only other candidates who didn’t buy new ads during the same time window were New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who have limited resources and are polling at less than 1 percent.
In one sense, it’s surprising: Biden has spent $1.5 million in Google and Facebook ads in the past 90 days, more than any other Democratic candidate. In another, it’s not: The former vice president and polling front-runner probably doesn’t want to draw more online attention to the debate, which saw him tangle with California Sen. Kamala Harris on race relations, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet on his deal-making abilities with Republicans and California Rep. Eric Swalwell on whether his time had passed.
Biden did send out a mass text message asking for donations immediately after the debate, and, though the campaign is not backing them with ad spending, his campaign has posted three times on his Facebook page. “If they were completely hiding from everything, you wouldn’t do that,” says a Democratic digital strategist tracking the presidential race, noting that candidate spending can fluctuate from day to day and week to week.
But the fact that Biden has been laying low on the morning after is in stark contrast to how other candidates hit the gas pedal online.
Harris’ big breakout came when she took on Biden directly, starting with “I do not believe you are racist” and ending with a harsh rebuttal of his past opposition to busing programs: “There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Immediately, her social team tweeted a photo of Harris as a young girl that soon circled the internet.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 28, 2019
It wasn’t just her. Swalwell also had a preplanned Biden attack that he hoped could vault him to relevancy. While his “pass the torch” line snuffed out onstage, his team was ready with a video from the California convention where Biden first made those remarks 32 years ago. Swalwell is also selling “Pass the torch” T-shirts. (Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is hawking shirts with his line from Wednesday night: “Adios, Trump.”) South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s account was churning out social videos as the debate went on, taking his biggest one-liners and turning them into shareable content instantly.
“This matters because so many people watch with a second or even third screen in their hands, but it also matters for those who don’t watch — because their perceptions of the night will be shaped online,” says Daniel Hoffmann, director of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital consulting firm. Both Harris and Buttigieg immediately filmed videos thanking supporters after leaving the debate stage, which were then turned into paid Facebook ads asking for donations.
A full picture of post-debate fundraising bumps won’t emerge for another few weeks, when campaign finance reports are due. But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign boasted on Thursday that he had the second-best fundraising day of his campaign, both in the number of donors and amount, after his launch day in February.
Here are some other takeaways from online activity during and after the big events:
Ask Google. Search trends can shed light on what viewers are thinking — and perhaps which candidates are piquing their interest most. For instance, we know that height seemed to be at the top of people’s minds … and old-school sexism reared its head leading into the debates.
For every one of the 6 female presidential candidates, whether or not they were married was a top-5 searched question, according to @GoogleTrends— Nicholas Fouriezos (@nick4iezos) June 28, 2019
Of the 14 men, viewers only wondered the same thing about Cory Booker and John Hickenlooper as often #DemDebates pic.twitter.com/sqDVM8ewUk
Before the first debate, Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke led search interest, according to Google Analytics, with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard leading search results only in her home state of Hawaii. However, by the end of the debate, Gabbard was the top-searched candidate in about half the country. Another big riser was Castro, who, like Gabbard, was polling at less than 1 percent on average leading into the night. By taking on O’Rourke, Castro saw his searches spike by 2,400 percent through the night.
So, count Gabbard and Castro in for a huge poll bump, right? Not so fast. Just because people are searching for you doesn’t mean you will make a dent. In fact, Google Trends searches tend to benefit those who are relatively unknown going into the debates. According to a Morning Consult poll this month, 48 percent of Americans had never even heard of Gabbard before Wednesday night (29 percent said the same about Castro). That made them the fifth and 14th least-known of 22 candidates, respectively. Which is why more credit should be given to candidates like Harris, who was the second most-searched after the second debate — even though only 16 percent of the country had not heard of her going in.
Is faith in the economy fragile? “Wages” and “unemployment” were consistently the third or fourth most-searched term in both debates (behind health care and immigration). This is interesting because, with the stock market at record-breaking highs and the unemployment rate at a 50-year low, the economy would appear to be a strength for the Trump administration.
The interest may merely have been curiosity. But it could also be a sign that faith in the economy, despite its statistical strengths, is shallow. It’s an idea Bully Pulpit Interactive recently explored, finding that 75 percent of Americans are financially concerned, with only a third saying they have full confidence they can cover their monthly expenses.
What wasn’t on people’s minds? Foreign policy, which is a bit shocking considering America almost teetered into war with Iran just last week, after an American drone was shot down in what the U.S. insists was neutral airspace. The MSNBC debate moderators didn’t make it a major talking point, instead asking the candidates to give one-word answers to what they felt was the greatest geopolitical threat facing the nation: Some said Russia, others China, while many said climate change.
— Eric Swalwell (@ericswalwell) June 28, 2019
The first debate included commitments to repair NATO relationships and negotiate the Iran deal that Trump departed, but a serious discussion must probably wait “until the field narrows down,” says former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin.