In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign cracked the code on Facebook as a campaign tool — gaining an advantage over Hillary Clinton that was little noticed at the time but helped propel him to victory.
This time, the president is betting big on YouTube.
Most campaigns merely post their television spots on the site. Trump’s YouTube channel, however, is a voluminous and unique collection of news, campaign ads and original web shows. Negative ads like “Don’t let them ruin America” are paired with livestreamed series such as “Black Voices for Trump: Real Talk Online!” and “The Right View.” The campaign uploads and then tests hundreds of short videos of the president speaking, while also posting news clips about things like the jobs report and the recent Serbia-Kosovo deal.
As Trump’s reelection effort pulled back on television advertising over the past month, it is pouring money and staff time into Google’s video platform. The campaign and its joint fund with the Republican National Committee have spent over $65 million on YouTube and Google — about $30 million of it since July. Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee joint committee, by comparison, have spent about $33 million on YouTube and Google during the entire campaign. (Google doesn’t provide an exact breakdown of the spending, but the Trump campaign said most of the money was for YouTube as opposed to search ads.)
With Biden ahead in the polls and quickly catching up in overall fundraising, Trump’s campaign sees YouTube as a potential soft spot in the Democrat’s effort and is trying to press its advantage. Trump’s campaign has also devoted significant resources to generating organic content on YouTube — regular videos uploaded by supporters as opposed to ones it pays to promote. In August, the campaign posted nearly 900 videos, while the Biden campaign posted just over 100.
Many digital strategists say YouTube’s algorithm is more likely to recommend to viewers channels that are updated regularly with new content. “The name of the game with algorithms is to flood the zones,” said Eric Wilson, a veteran Republican digital operative. “The Trump campaign is putting on a master class in advertising according to algorithms — it just rewards the side that will produce more content.”
Still, the Trump campaign says it sees YouTube as an underappreciated campaign asset, much like it viewed Facebook four years ago. YouTube is the most popular online platform in the country: More than 9 of 10 Americans age 18 to 29 uses it, according to Pew surveys, a higher share than Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. And the Trump campaign said it has seen engagement with its YouTube channel rise significantly among 25- to 34-year-olds.
Trump campaign advisers said Facebook was almost always a better campaign tool than YouTube in 2016 given its powerful targeting abilities and the lack of public scrutiny around them. But as Democrats have caught up on Facebook and the platform’s every move is dissected, Trump officials say YouTube has been more effective at times than Facebook at mobilization, fundraising and persuasion in 2020. YouTube has also become increasingly influential force on the internet generally.
That’s why the campaign has ramped up its spending so dramatically on YouTube after spending less than $10 million on it in 2016.
Still, Republican and Democratic strategists disagree over whether the expensive gambit will work. Some Democrats see the frenetic activity on YouTube as more Kabuki theater rather than anything meaningful for November. Other Democratic digital strategists say the power of YouTube shouldn’t be underestimated but they argue that Trump’s investment comes from a place a weakness.
“The conditions on the ground — record unemployment and 180,000 Covid deaths — strongly favor Biden. So the Trump campaign has to create a more positive narrative to keep their supporters engaged and energized,” said Nu Wexler, a Democratic strategist who has worked at Google, Facebook and Twitter. “YouTube hype videos is one way to do that, though their content is completely at odds with reality.”
The Trump campaign’s YouTube strategy is also the latest example of it becoming its own news publisher, bypassing the established media. Many of the campaign’s videos are short news clips or snippets of the press secretary’s daily briefing.
Trump’s focus on the platform was apparent during the party conventions. The campaign spent millions to dominate YouTube’s homepage during all four days of the Democratic convention. Its ad blitz drew 40 million views to five new ads, and 93 percent of the watch-time came from nonsubscribers. The campaign told POLITICO that its videos had 509 million views over the past four months.
Trump’s campaign was also more aggressive in how it used the platform. Whereas Democrats uploaded the former vice president’s entire convention speech, Trump’s campaign spliced his into 28 clips, each posted to YouTube. Republicans did the same thing with nearly every other major speech, while Democrats uploaded their speeches in full.
A Trump campaign official said the post-heavy approach is important for testing, and argued that the increased volume is better for users and for sharing. The Biden campaign countered that Biden’s full speech had more than 500,000 views while the 28 clips cumulatively had less than 100,000. The Biden team said they didn’t put money behind their video to boost it.
Biden campaign officials downplayed the notion that Trump has outfoxed them on YouTube. “I don’t see that as a silver bullet,” said Patrick Bonsignore, Biden’s director of paid media. “It feels to me like their programs are more heavily weighted towards the direct response and fundraising side of things,” rather than persuasion. In other words, communicating to Trump’s base rather than expanding it.
The recent investment has made Trump’s YouTube following the largest of any politician in the country, surpassing Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, who had larger followings until a few months ago. Since April, the Trump campaign’s YouTube channel has grown from about 327,000 subscribers to nearly a million. Biden’s campaign, which spent a negligible amount on YouTube during the primary, has gone from 32,000 subscribers to 173,000. The campaign has been doing more on the platform recently and premiered a “socially distanced conversation” between Biden and Kamala Harris last week that had over 170,000 views.
Aware of the gap and the unlikeliness of closing it by Election Day, however, Biden’s campaign has been trying to appear on other popular social channels to leverage their large followings. Earlier this week, Harris made a cameo in a “Verzuz” battle between Brandy and Monica that streamed on Instagram and had over 4 million views. The Biden team also takes pride in the advertising it has been doing on less discussed platforms like Hulu and Pandora, where it believes it has an edge.
“I feel really confident that our program is more [varied] in terms of the number of places that we’re running ads,” Bonsignore said. “That [YouTube] playbook is certainly not the whole game.”
The Biden campaign also has some backup on YouTube courtesy of the Priorities USA super PAC. It has spent an additional $5 million on the platform, much more than any Trump-affiliated super PAC so far.
Even with the tens of millions being thrown into the video platform, Republican and Democratic consultants are divided on how much of it will matter. Google last year began limiting political advertisers’ ability to target audiences: They can do so by age, gender and location, but are barred from using political affiliation or voter records to identify potential supporters.
Also, YouTube subscribers also haven’t always translated into wins at the ballot box — Sanders trounced Biden on YouTube, only to fall to him in the primary.
Still, the Trump campaign has already signaled it will maintain a robust presence on YouTube through November. The campaign has already reserved the most expensive digital ad space in the country on Election Day: YouTube’s homepage.