A pile of U.S. $1 bills.

By Anthony Dabbundo

In addition to tracking the total amount of money spent and total number of impressions earned, the Illuminating Project tracks the amount spent per 1000 impressions over time. In many of the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, Joe Biden spent less per ad view than Donald Trump, which represented a significant shift from earlier points of the campaign, when Trump’s ads had lower spend per views. 

As shown by the graph below, Donald Trump often spent much less per 1000 impressions throughout the campaign.  Most notably, Biden spent a staggering $19 more per 1000 views than Trump during the week of August 3rd. The President-elect spent $45 compared to just $26 for the President that week. However, as the campaign progressed into mid-September, there was a shift. Instead, it was Trump’s ads that cost more spend per view, while Biden’s ads saw a decrease in spend per view from the campaign’s August peaks. 

Line chart showing how much Biden and Trump each spent per 1000 impressions weekly from 6/1 to 11/1/20. The chart shows Trump generally spending less until Biden began spending less per 1000 impressions for parts of September and October.
Biden and Trump spend per 1000 impressions from 6/1-11/1/20

This trend with Biden spending less per 1000 impressions came right around the time of the debates and town hall, when Trump and Biden were both shown on different networks at the same time. Many expected Trump to draw bigger ratings, but Biden’s town hall ultimately drew higher viewership. 

One potential theory is that more people had made their minds up on their views of the President, while fewer people had a view of the now President-elect prior to the election. According to Real Clear Politics‘ polling averages, more voters had undecided or unknown views of Biden than they did of Trump.  Given that Facebook sets the cost to run an ad based on an auction system — where advertisers bid against other advertisers to run ads targeting the same audience — it’s possible that Trump had to pay a premium to run ads targeting a smaller pool of Facebook and Instagram users relative to the users that Biden was targeting toward the end of the campaign.

One interesting trend found in Illuminating’s spend per view data is that ads targeting older demographics are typically the ones that campaigns pay a premium for. Both Trump’s and Biden’s campaigns spent more per dollar on people over the age of 65 than any other age group.

Compare this to younger audiences, who were the least expensive to earn impressions from. For Biden, the increase occurred as the age groups did. For Trump, the cost of impressions remained flat at $23 per 1000 impressions for the 18-24, 25-34 and 35-44 age groups before increasing.

Bar chart showing how much Trump and Biden each spent on ads per 1000 impressions by age group. The chart generally shows that Biden spent increasingly more on each older age group whereas Trump spent the most on 13-17 year olds and 65+.
Biden and Trump spend per 1000 impressions by age from 6/1-11/1/20.

For both Biden and Trump, the difference in ad spend per 1000 impressions only was $2 apart by gender. While the spend per view amounts did not vary much by message type or gender, they did vary significantly by message topic. But for message topic, Biden’s ads ranged from cheapest ($20) on governance-related ads and most expensive ($41) on foreign policy. Safety, social and cultural, and military spending were also among the highest spend per 1000 impressions types for Biden.

For Trump, his least expensive topic was social and cultural ads ($15), while his most expensive was education ads ($41). His other most expensive ads were also different from Biden’s, with the topics being COVID-19 and the environment. 

Tree map showing Trump's spend per 1000 impressions by message topic. The map indicates that Trump spent the most on education, environment, covid, and the military.
Trump spend per 1000 impressions by message topic from 6/1-11/1/20.
Tree map showing Biden's spend per 1000 impressions by message topic. The map indicates that Biden spent the most on foreign policy, safety, social and cultural, military, and economic ads.
Biden spend per 1000 impressions by message topic from 6/1-11/1/20.

Biden spent nearly twice as much per 1000 impressions when he ran ads on safety than when Trump did. Biden spent $40 per 1000 impressions on safety, compared to just $21 for Trump. Compare this to COVID-19, where Biden spent $10 less per 1000 impressions than Trump had to. 

The two campaigns prioritized different age groups, topics and message types throughout the 2020 campaign. Looking back, though, Donald Trump’s ads were not receiving more impressions per dollar spent  in the final weeks of the campaign, even though that was true earlier in the cycle. 

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 are for Trump and Biden’s main Facebook pages only. Featured image for this post is by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

Examining how the candidates’ amount spent per view changed throughout the campaign
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