On any given day, the Trump campaign is plastering ads all over Facebook, YouTube and the millions of sites served by Google, hitting the kind of incendiary themes — immigrant invaders, the corrupt media — that play best on platforms where algorithms favor outrage and political campaigns are free to disregard facts.
Even seemingly ominous developments for Mr. Trump become fodder for his campaign. When news broke last month that congressional Democrats were opening an impeachment inquiry, the campaign responded with an advertising blitz aimed at firing up the president’s base.
The campaign slapped together an “Impeachment Poll” (sample question: “Do you agree that President Trump has done nothing wrong?”). It invited supporters to join the Official Impeachment Defense Task Force (“All you need to do is DONATE NOW!”). It produced a slick video laying out the debunked conspiracy theory about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Ukraine that is now at the center of the impeachment battle (“Learn the truth. Watch Now!”).
The onslaught overwhelmed the limited Democratic response. Mr. Biden’s campaign put up the stiffest resistance: It demanded Facebook take down the ad, only to be rebuffed. It then proceeded with plans to slash its online advertising budget in favor of more television ads.
That campaigns are now being fought largely online is hardly a revelation, yet only one political party seems to have gotten the message. While the Trump campaign has put its digital operation firmly at the center of the president’s re-election effort, Democrats are struggling to internalize the lessons of the 2016 race and adapt to a political landscape shaped by social media.
Mr. Trump’s first campaign took far better advantage of Facebook and other platforms that reward narrowly targeted — and, arguably, nastier — messages. And while the president is now embattled on multiple fronts and disfavored by a majority of Americans in most polls, he has one big advantage: His 2020 campaign, flush with cash, is poised to dominate online again, according to experts on both ends of the political spectrum, independent researchers and tech executives. The difference between the parties’ digital efforts, they said, runs far deeper than the distinction between an incumbent’s general-election operation and challengers’ primary campaigns.
The Trump team has spent the past three years building out its web operation. As a sign of its priorities, the 2016 digital director, Brad Parscale, is now leading the entire campaign. He is at the helm of what experts described as a sophisticated digital marketing effort, one that befits a relentlessly self-promoting candidate who honed his image, and broadcast it into national consciousness, on reality television.
The campaign under Mr. Parscale is focused on pushing its product — Mr. Trump — by churning out targeted ads, aggressively testing the content and collecting data to further refine its messages. It is selling hats, shirts and other gear, a strategy that yields yet more data, along with cash and, of course, walking campaign billboards.