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MIT Technology Review

Republicans spent millions on last-minute voting ads on Facebook

Facebook’s ad ban didn’t stop campaigns from trying to drive turnout on Election Day, with one Republican group spending over $1 million on November 3 alone.

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On midnight of October 26, Facebook stopped accepting all new advertisements about “social issues, elections, or politics in the US.” The intention was to prevent Facebook from being overwhelmed by a blitz of last-minute ads that would require fact-checking, and to limit the ability of political groups to sow confusion or violence. Advertisers were not blocked from running old ads, however: Facebook’s rules meant they could continue to run already-approved political ads through to the end of Election Day, after which they were all removed. 

We already know that turnout was historically high across both Democrats and Republican voters. Though it looks as if Joe Biden will receive the highest number of votes for any presidential candidate in history, Donald Trump is on track to receive the second-highest number. Republican competitiveness in the face of such high turnout was a surprise to many, and not always reflected in polls taken before the vote itself. There are a number of possible explanations, but one major difference was a huge last-minute investment in ads that encouraged turnout by Republicans. 

What the data says

The biggest spender on Election Day was “Register to Vote Republican,” a page that is registered under the Republican National Committee. It spent $1.3 million on ads on November 3 alone. In fact, while it spent about $5.3 million on the campaign since the page was created on July 24, around $3.3 million of that came in the seven days before the pause. 

The strategy 

One of the "get out the vote" ads that the Register to Vote Republican page was investing in and retargeting toward swing states on November 3.

“Get out the vote” ads are typical toward the end of a campaign, but the last-minute push to register Republicans dominated the political ads on Facebook in the last few days before the election. The ads created by “Register to Vote Republican,” which contain standard messages of mobilization, were generally activated on Facebook on October 25-26, squeezing in just before the deadline for new advertisements. Once those ads were approved and in Facebook’s system, money continued to pump into campaigns, and the ads were put through a constant set of tweaks and changes redirecting them toward a few battleground states. 

According to Facebook’s Ad Library, there were upwards of 50 adjustments to ads in the week running up to Election Day, with most changes happening on November 2 and 3. It’s difficult to parse exactly how much money and how many impressions were directed to each state, but it’s clear that the last-minute ads aimed at driving up turnout were heavily concentrated in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. 

This is a big change from previous Republican efforts to bolster turnout through digital advertising. In 2016, the party spent just under $3 million on digital ads aimed at turnout, compared with a total of $60 million in 2020. According to data from the Ad Observatory, a monitoring project from New York University, since October 12 Donald Trump outspent Joe Biden on Facebook ads that mentioned “vote” or “ballot” by over a million dollars.

The Biden campaign spent more money on Facebook ads intended to turn out voters in total during the campaign, but this spending was concentrated earlier in the cycle. Biden also heavily invested in Facebook ads during the last week of the election—spending more than the Trump campaign overall during that time period. But most of the adjustments made in the week before November 3 were focused on persuasive advertising in battleground states—such as messaging about economic issues—and not on ads to increase turnout. Democrats had focused on mail-in votes and early voting because of the pandemic, and they may have invested less in turnout ads toward the end because of the longer runway and the knowledge that voters had already cast their ballots before Election Day.

What it means

Facebook’s ban on new ads appears to be continuing indefinitely. Political ads are still not running on the platform at the time of writing, and it is unclear how long the policy will remain in place.

The data on ads up to Election Day is far from final, and it’s hard to draw direct conclusions from what we know. The real effectiveness of Facebook ads has been questioned many times. 

But what is clear is that historic turnout bolstered Republican and Democratic performance in the 2020 election, and that mail-in and early voting skewed heavily toward Democrats while same-day voting favored Republicans. The push to turn out the vote may have also affected results beyond the presidency, including down-ballot races for the House of Representatives—where the Democrats lost a number of seats—and the Senate, where the Republicans and Democrats are currently locked in a tie with the outcome of several races still to come.