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Political groups see the potential to change voters' minds through social media ads. (Austin Ramsey / The Wash)

Trump and Democrats up the ante on social media ads about impeachment

Ads that ‘target and persuade’ voters undecided on impeachment could change public opinion, media expert says.

As money pours in for political ads focused on impeachment, voters on the fence may be swayed, according to a professor of media studies.

In the weeks since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initiated an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s conduct, political organizations on both sides have spent millions of dollars on Facebook advertisements.

Scott Talan, a media expert and professor at American University, said ad campaigns could persuade people who are unsure if the president should be impeached.

“There is a fairly high amount of the electorate that has not made their mind up yet on impeachment,” Talan said. “If the ads target and persuade those undecided folks, then the spending can have an impact.”

Thirteen percent of voters are undecided on impeachment, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released last week. The poll showed that support for impeachment was increasing, however, with 43% of Americans in favor.

The ads, some of which accuse Democrats of using the impeachment inquiry as a way to discredit Trump’s presidential campaign, could also serve the purpose of confirming the opinions of social media users who have already made up their minds on impeachment, Talan said.

“I think part of the ad spend will also reach people who have made their mind up and this will simply be an echo and confirmation of what they already believe,” Talan said.

While digital advertising usually comprises a sliver of campaign budgets — usually 3 to 5% for most Senate candidates, Trump has invested heavily. He spent 44% of his media campaign budget on digital media in the lead up to the 2016 election, according to digital campaign consulting group Tech For Campaigns.

These ads had an impact, according to a study from the University of Warwick.

A 10% increase in Republican voter turnout among key demographics was linked to the $44 million the Trump campaign spent on Facebook ads, the study said.

Who is spending more?

At least some political groups are sold on the idea that a big digital ad push can move the needle on the contentious impeachment debate.

Democrat-aligned group Need To Impeach, founded by presidential candidate Tom Steyer, plans to spend $3.1 million on advertising in the next several weeks,  The Washington Post reported.

But Republicans may be set to outspend Democrats.

Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee have spent a combined $2.1 million on Facebook ads in the past week, a quarter of which were related to the impeachment inquiry, according to ACRONYM, a progressive nonprofit that tracks Trump’s digital spending. They also announced a planned $10 million dollar TV ad buy, the Associated Press reported.

Part of the spending differential may be because some Democrats are approaching the impeachment debate with caution.

Progressive super PAC Democracy for America plans to contribute some funds to social media advertising that pushes impeachment, according to Neil Sroka, a spokesperson. However, he said Democratic groups should focus on educating the members of the public who may not know how impeachment works. He suggests investing in advertisements that can also serve to promote issues outside of impeachment.

“I think it’s important to make sure false messages from the right are countered, but we should not let Republicans paint the Democrats as the party of impeachment,” Sroka said. “Democrats should lay out their vision for the country and put forward an alternative to the current administration.”

While Democratic political action organizations are spending funds on ads regarding the impeachment inquiry, candidates have been less eager to wade in.

The campaign of Biden, whose son was mentioned in the Trump-Zelensky phone call, has purchased several Facebook ads alluding to Trump allowing foreign governments to “hijack” the election, but none have mentioned the impeachment inquiry, according to ABC News.

Chris Casey

Chris Casey is an investigative journalist and Journalism and Public Affairs masters student at American University. He is currently partaking in the Practicum at The Washington Post.

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