Presidential campaigning during the coronavirus crisis

From targeted ads on Facebook and Snapchat to Zoom celebrity events and email blasts, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing the Trump and Biden campaigns to get creative as they make their bids for the presidency.

A conference room full of empty chairs in front of an empty podium on a stage with an American flag on the left side.
The coronavirus pandemic has transformed traditional presidential campaigning into a mostly online effort.

From targeted ads on Facebook and Snapchat to Zoom celebrity events and email blasts, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing the Trump and Biden campaigns to get creative as they make their bids for the presidency.

So what does a presidential campaign look like without raucous rallies, shaking hands, holding babies and balloon drops in packed rooms?

It looks like a lot of ads on social media, according to Andrew Arenge, director of operations for Penn's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES) and the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program. Arenge has been closely tracking how each campaign is managing its digital advertising this election cycle and is collecting data on a daily basis. Arenge, who is also pursuing a master’s of liberal arts degree at Penn, plans to write his thesis on the 2020 Democratic primary and the use of digital ads.

“What prompted me to start looking into this was the fact that the Trump campaign was really good with Facebook ads in 2016 and that potentially was what could have made the difference for them,” he says. “There's also been a lot of discussion amongst tech companies to be more transparent about who is doing what on their platforms, and I was fascinated to see how this would play out.”

Facebook makes a downloadable data set available every day of how much candidates spend on the platform, but it’s only available for the day, Arenge says. So, starting about a year ago, Arenge began downloading the data every day.

He’s tracking types of ads—like whether they are critical of the other candidate or if they're asking for campaign donations—and following where in the country they are being run on Facebook. Trump’s campaign, for instance, has been advertising across multiple Facebook pages, while the Biden campaign has been advertising solely on his page, Arenge says. 

In some ways the ads are mimicking door-to-door canvassing by targeting certain ZIP codes, he says.

“In the Google data you can actually see the ZIP codes that Biden is targeting in Pennsylvania, for instance. He’s been targeting ads at high Democratic areas, like part of Pittsburgh, sections of Philadelphia, and the suburbs right outside of Philadelphia County,” says Arenge.

The pandemic hasn’t just led to an uptick in online ads. Campaigns are doing more voter email blasts and targeted text messaging, and in this way they’ve become more adept at raising small-dollar donations, he says. But it’s a delicate balance, since too many messages a day can lead to voter fatigue and cause people to unsubscribe, he says.

Online fundraisers are another tactical change for the candidates, Arenge says. Biden recently held a Zoom fundraiser with Elizabeth Warren that seemed like a dress rehearsal for the virtual convention, Arenge says, featuring pre-produced videos and a slew of celebrities.

But in the end, this online push is reminiscent of a traditional campaign: all about finding out where to target attention and what message makes the most sense to send to those voters.

Arenge’s role at PORES also involves working on the NBC Decision Desk alongside John Lapinski, PORES faculty director and director of the elections unit at NBC News. Their team, which typically includes political science undergraduates, is in charge of all election night analysis at NBC, calling hundreds of races around the country.

Arenge predicts that as Election Day approaches each campaign’s messaging will shift to helping voters navigate how to cast their ballots, like offering information on vote-by-mail deadlines. And with the expected uptick in voting by mail, messaging will also have to help explain how it will likely take longer to get a final count than a typical election day, he says. “COVID has most certainly impacted every aspect of this election.”