Exploring Illuminating’s 12 topic categories for the 2020 Presidential Election campaign ads

By Julia Howard-Flanders

The 2020 presidential campaigns often run hundreds of different Facebook and Instagram ads at the same time. The sheer magnitude of different ads running simultaneously makes it difficult to follow each campaign’s messaging – what the campaigns are saying in their ads in their attempts to persuade the public. To make it easier to monitor campaign messaging, the Illuminating 2020 Project developed Machine Learning (ML) algorithms to automatically classify Facebook and Instagram ads by the Trump and Biden campaigns by message topic. To do so, our team engaged in an iterative process of developing lexicons to guide the ML models’ topic classifications and comparing the results of the ML classifications to human coders until the performance for all of the ML models was deemed satisfactory. 

The 12 topics include COVID, Economic, Education, Environment, Foreign Policy, Governance, Health, Immigration, Military, Safety, Social and Cultural, and Social Programs. These topics are not mutually exclusive, and an ad could consist of anywhere from 1 to all 12 topic labels, if applicable. This post provides a summary of each topic with an example.

Paused video from a Biden ad. The scene shows a news anchor with the following caption appearing while they speak: "The pandemic leveled the US economy in the second quarter of this year." At the bottom of the video is a "PAID FOR BY BIDEN VICTORY FUND" disclaimer.


The COVID topic is the team’s newest classification created specifically for messages that pertain to the COVID-19 virus whether that be government action or lack thereof, the work of medical professionals, and economic repercussions of the various lock down measures. This category most often coincides with the Health and Economic topics. This ad by Joe Biden discusses the implications of the Coronavirus on the U.S. economy. Therefore, the message was labeled COVID and Economic.

The body of a Trump ad. The ad features an image of Joe Biden in black and white. Beneath Biden is the following statement: "JOE BIDEN'S FAILED LIBERAL IDEAS MEAN HIGHER TAXES ON YOUR FAMILIES."


This topic includes a variety of socioeconomic problems and allocations of federal spending. It’s important to note that discussions based on funding for domestic or international policy do not fit into this category unless the message relates back to the economic impact in the US.  This political ad run by the Trump campaign entitled: “Joe Biden’s Liberal Ideas would CRUSH our economy” is an example of an Economic ad. The paired words most likely flagged to be economic by our machine learning algorithm were higher taxes, crippling regulations, trade deals, American jobs, and wage growth.

The body of a Biden ad. The ad includes an image of Biden with three adolescents along with the following statement: "TODOS CON BIDEN: Biden's Agenda for the Latino Community."


Education is a reasonably straight-forward topic, including messages that discuss education standards, teacher training, subject-specific learning (e.g., English language learning) as well as messages relating to safety in schools and education programs for prisoners looking to rejoin society. Most messages labeled Education, also have other topics assigned. For example, this ad by Joe Biden would be labeled as Social and Cultural, Health, Economic, Education and Immigration by the ML algorithm. The Social and Cultural label comes from the phrase “race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability”. Health was labeled because of “affordable health care”; although Social Programs is not coded because no specific healthcare program was discussed. Economic was labeled since the ad discusses minimum wage being raised. The words “education” and “immigration policy” were picked up by the lexicon so the ad was also given both the Education and Immigration label classifications.

Body of a Biden ad. The ad includes the following quote credited to Rolling Stone on August 11, 2020: "How Joe Biden's Plan Could Be a Transformative Step to Addressing the Climate Crisis."


This topic focuses on political messages that target global warming/climate change or renewable energy. This topic occasionally gets cross-listed with the Economic subtopic in instances where job creation is also referenced, such as in relation to either the Green or Blue New Deal. In this Biden campaign ad entitled, “We must urgently address climate change: Sign on”, Biden addresses the climate emergency and preventative measures that need to be enacted to ameliorate the threat of climate change and produce clean energy for a cleaner future.  As you may have guessed, this ad is labeled both as Environment and Economic due to the mention of both unions and the creation of jobs. 

Paused video from a Trump ad. The scene shows President Trump and three other individuals sitting in the oval office with members of the press holding cameras and microphones to document the event.

Foreign Policy:

Not to be confused with Military or Economic, the Foreign Policy topic has a slightly different classification for political posts and ads. Policies or trade deals related to foreign governments whether in regards to aid or war all fall into this subcategory.  This political ad by Donald J. Trump discusses a peace agreement being formed between different countries, which is why it was labeled foreign policy by the lexicon. Foreign Policy is often seen in conjunction with Economic, such as when a post mentions how a certain foreign trade policy may take away from American jobs; however, that is not the case with this ad. 

Body of Trump ad. The ad shows Biden pointing a finger towards the camera with an angry expression. The ad body includes the following statement: "BREAKING NEWS: Democrats warn Biden against releasing list of Supreme Court Judges."


The Governance topic is not quite as straightforward in its classifications. It encompasses all matters related to how the US government functions and issues that have come up in conjunction with the media. Any mention of citizen’s rights, even if the overall theme of the message is more immigration or race related, is also labeled by our ML model as a Governance subtopic. This ad by the Trump campaign entitled, “SUPREME COURT APPROVAL POLL” comes after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is labeled Governance because the Supreme Court and nominations fall into the Judicial Branch of the U.S. government.

Body of Biden ad. The ad shows a photograph of Biden with President Obama. Biden is smiling and has his arm around Obama's shoulder.


The Health topic encompasses all health services and access to them. Health messages often have multiple labels assigned to them. For example, women’s reproductive rights are labeled as both Health, and Social and Cultural; while messages that deal with addiction issues such as the opioid crisis are labeled as both Health and Safety. Also, all messages that mention COVID by name will be given both topic categories.  This ad by the Biden campaign, “DO YOU SUPPORT PROTECTING AND BUILDING ON OBAMACARE”, is labeled as both Health and Social Programs because it explicitly mentions Obamacare, in addition to specific hardships faced by people who lack health treatments.

Paused video from a Trump ad. The scene shows President Trump and four other individuals inspecting the border wall. Above the scene is the following statement: "TEXT TRUMP TO 88022." Below the scene is the following statement: "STOP ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION."


The Immigration topic is broken down into messages that deal with protecting US borders and immigrant’s path to citizenship. Trump’s ad, “HELP FINISH THE WALL: SIGN THE PETITION!” was classified as immigration due to discussion on the border wall and illegal immigration. 

Body from Biden ad. The ad shows Biden affectionately placing his hand on his son Beau Biden. Beau Biden is dressed in military fatigues. The bottom of the image includes the following statement: "Standing by our troops. For Joe Biden, it's personal."


The Military topic specifically encompasses political messages that deal with military and veteran’s affairs. It is important to note that warfare is not categorized as Military unless there are specific mentions of preparing for war such as the type of military technology. This ad by Joe Biden, although not explicitly talking about an issue, discusses personal feelings towards men and women in the military. Messages pertaining towards service members, either current or past, fall into the Military subcategory.

Paused video from a Trump ad. The scene shows a dark police station office with the following statement" Learn more about why Sleepy Joe is DANGEROUS for America. TEXT TRUMP TO 88022."


Messages pertaining to safety are broad in scope, but are distinguished by focusing on a failure of the government to keep people safe. This topic includes such enduring safety issues as crime and gun legislation as well as more recent concerns as substance abuse and the NSA’s surveillance practices.This Trump ad entitled, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” is an example of a “Safety” ad. The ad claims that Biden’s supporters want to defund the police” and violent crime has recently “exploded.”

Body of ad by Biden. The ad shows Trump walking by a line of armed security forces.

Social and Cultural:

This topic focuses on issues specifically surrounding minority and disenfranchised groups of people in specific categories of race, gender, and religion. Messages regarding poverty or inequality, however, get labeled as Economic, not Social and Cultural. This ad by Joe Biden digs at systemic racism within America. The paired words most likely to have been the cause for labeling this message as Social and Cultural is “racial wounds”. 

Body of ad by Biden. The ad shows Trump with the following statement: "If Re-Elected, TRUMP WILL DEFUND Social Security."

Social Programs: 

This topic includes reference to any program that is supported by federal funding or those that give all people access to social services. Possible messages could include mentions of health care, social security, welfare programs, or general solutions to social or cultural issues.  Our ML algorithm identified this ad run by the Biden campaign entitled “Act Now. Protect and Expand Social Security” as a “Social Program” ad. There has been some debate over both Biden’s and Trump’s stance on social programs like Social Security going into the 2020 election. The ML algorithm most likely picked up the words “defund Social Security” when labeling this ad.

Featured Image by Alexander Awerin on Unsplash. All other images are from the Facebook Ad Library.

Exploring Illuminating’s 12 topic categories for the 2020 Presidential Election campaign ads
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