How Trump, O’Rourke, and the GOP lead the online political advertising race

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Ever since President Trump’s win in 2016–which many attribute, in part, to his vast online advertising program–many have demanded more transparency for the ads that can be microtargeted at voters on platforms like Facebook and Google. Now that these companies are under greater scrutiny, they’re attempting to be more open about how their ad platforms work and who uses their content.

A team of data scientists at NYU Tandon, led by professor Damon McCoy, have been crunching all the data they can get about political advertisers on Facebook, Google, and Twitter. In a paper published on Monday, they describe a survey of ads published in a two-week period this past September (it should be noted that all three platforms have different criteria for what they consider “political”). What’s clear is that the three companies’ advertising programs combined create an extremely powerful advertising engine.

“We find that in total, ads with political content have generated at least 5.9B impressions and have cost their sponsors $116M and possibly up to 21B impressions and spent $403M on advertising with U.S. political content,” the authors write. And while Trump is a major player in this, he’s not the only one.

For instance, Texas Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke is the largest online political candidate advertiser “in terms of spending and impressions across all three platforms.” The biggest advertiser as a whole, using this criteria, is the Senate Leadership Fund–a PAC working to expand the Republicans’ majority in the Senate.–– ADVERTISEMENT ––O’Rourke, who is challenging Ted Cruz in a highly scrutinized race, is going all-in on online advertising. During the two weeks when the researchers were collecting the data, he spent $683,000 and garnered at least 23.6 million impressions. Most of his ads were calls for small donations. It should be noted that his campaign, and no PACs, footed the bill for this digital barrage.
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