Photograph of a person's hand holding a stethoscope and a mask.

By Julia Howard-Flanders

The Coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise and countries chose to react in their own ways with some closing down borders and some letting their country ride it out–at least for a while. How well the U.S. chose to handle the pandemic can be debated, but the facts cannot. The country has since faced an economic recession and a rise in unemployment. As the death toll in the U.S. climbs to over 230,000, politicians realize that their vision for the future must include a way to handle this crisis. By examining how much the Biden and Trump campaigns have spent on COVID-related ads and the language used within such ads, we may be able to gain a sense of how the candidates plan on responding to the crisis if elected or re-elected.

When analyzing data from June 2020 till now, COVID has been both Biden’s and Trump’s fourth largest labeled message topic. However, it’s important to remember that political messages can have anywhere from 0-12 topic labels and thus, are not mutually exclusive. 

Tree maps showing proportional spending by message topic for Trump and Biden from 6/1 to 11/1/20. Biden's map generally shows a focus on social and cultural, economic, foreign policy, and COVID (in that order). Trump's map generally shows an emphasis on governance, safety, and economic (in that order).
Biden and Trump spending breakdown by topic from 6/1-11/1

Upon looking into COVID-labeled messages for both Presidential candidates, it’s clear to see that Biden’s COVID messages often are labeled with at least one other category topic. Biden most often references the Coronavirus in discussion with economic, health, and social programs issues, while Trump’s messages are most often only COVID-related, occasionally being labeled Economic also.  Perhaps, ads run by Biden are correlating COVID-19 with consequences in the US, such as Americans losing their jobs or seeking better healthcare to pay for medical bills.

Tree maps showing proportional spending by message topic for Trump and Biden ads about COVID from 6/1 to 11/1/20. Biden's map generally shows a focus on COVID and Economic. Trump's map generally shows an emphasis on COVID by itself.
Biden and Trump spending breakdown for COVID ads from 6/1-11/1

If we examine the most expensive COVID unique ads run by the Biden campaign, 4 of the top 10 ads have at least one other topic label in addition to COVID. 

For example, this ad entitled, “Pennsylvania needs Joe Biden” was labeled as COVID, Environment, and Social and Cultural because the context of the message discusses issues across these categories. Political ads like this one are contributing to the proportional spending for Biden occurring across multiple topics.

Of the 12 observed ad buys of this one ad, or times this ad was run, there were an estimated 557,494 impressions and $13,644 spent. 

When comparing Biden and Trump’s spending overall on COVID ads since June 2020, we see that it is about the same between the two parties with Trump slightly in the lead.

Bar chart showing Biden and Trump total spending on COVID ads from 6/1-11/1. The chart shows both candidates spending slightly above $2 million and Trump spending slightly more overall.
Biden and Trump total spending on COVID ads 6/1-11/1

Joe Biden’s official page has accumulated a total of $2,079,945 in spending towards ads labeled COVID, while that for Donald J. Trump’s official page has now reached $2,173,031. A quick glance of the overall spending estimates may suggest that both candidates have been discussing COVID-19 at relatively the same frequency since June, but a deeper dive into the weekly estimates indicates that is not the case.

Line chart showing Biden and Trump weekly spending on COVID ads from 6/1-11/1. The general trend is Biden spending more than Trump and Trump spending very little until the week of October 1st where Trump's spending drastically increases and then declines again the following weeks.
Biden and Trump weekly spending on COVID ads 6/1-11/1

In actuality, up until the week of October 4th, Biden’s spending towards ads that referenced COVID far surpassed that of President Trump. So what happened in October that caused Trump to suddenly refocus his energy into the pandemic?

Bar chart showing total spending on COVID ads for Biden and Trump from 6/1 to 10/4. The chart shows Biden spending significantly more than Trump.
Biden and Trump total spending on COVID ads 6/1-10/04

The most obvious potential cause for this sudden spike in COVID-related ads is that President Trump announced on October 2, 2020 that he and the first lady tested positive for the virus. Trump has gone back and forth on his stance on the pandemic, but has spent the most money on COVID ads while he was battling the disease. After he and his wife recovered, the amount of money spent on COVID ads dropped back down. 

It isn’t extremely surprising that two of Trump’s top three most expensive unique COVID ads directly talked about himself.

Of the 350 observed ad buys for this ad on the left, the Illuminating project estimated that there was a total spending of $245,945 for approximately 8,513,326 impressions.

For this ad on the right, the Illuminating project estimated that of the 59 observed ad buys, there was a spending of $32,120 for approximately 1,223,470 impressions. 

These two ads account for 12.8% of Trump’s total spending on COVID ads. In both of these ads, Trump references the Coronavirus in relation to his personal recovery. In neither message does Trump discuss the U.S. death toll nor how U.S. citizens are coping in paying for their hospital bills or treatments. President Trump is using his recovery from COVID to gain support for the election rather than focusing on the important issue at hand, which is how the United States and its citizens will recover and rebound from the pandemic. 

Despite COVID cases again rising and reaching the highest daily numbers within the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump’s spending has declined back down to the amount his campaign spent on COVID messages prior to his testing positive.

All data is accurate as of date of publication. All spending and impression amounts are estimates based on data provided by the Facebook Ad Library API. The estimates provided in the Message Topic sections are for Trump and Biden’s main Facebook page only. Feature Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash.

The Cost of COVID: For Candidates and for the Country
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