With unprecedented protests around race and policing dominating the news all summer, it was all but certain criminal justice would emerge as a key issue in 2020’s presidential campaign. The question was how the political messaging would play out. Would Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cast themselves as the torch-bearers for a new mainstream acceptance of Black Lives Matter? Would Donald Trump—who has flirted with branding himself a criminal justice reformer—return to the tropes of “American carnage” that characterized his 2016 run?
To understand how Republicans and Democrats are using criminal justice issues to reach voters, the Marshall Project analyzed hundreds of thousands of political campaign advertisements on Facebook from December 2019 to this month. Arguably the most powerful political messaging platform in history, Facebook allows candidates to microtarget tailored messages to demographic groups and even to individual voters by name. Probing that data lets us see how candidates reach voters, with a level of detail that earlier generations of strategists and political pundits could only dream of.
Our analysis found that of the $82 million Trump’s reelection campaign has spent on Facebook ads this year, $6.6 million paid for ads about crime and policing—a top focus of his Facebook campaign. Almost all of it came since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May. More than one-third of those ad buys were aimed at key battleground states and many sought to persuade specific undecided voters, and married women in particular. The Biden campaign? It didn’t spend a cent on criminal justice ads on Facebook until late August, choosing instead to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery. Yet Biden had, during the Democratic primaries, articulated a more progressive criminal justice platform than any of his party’s recent nominees.
After being hammered by Trump and other Republicans as a puppet of antifa and the “radical left,” in recent weeks Biden has begun to shift his strategy, making some mention of criminal justice issues in ads on television and social media.
Examining the candidates’ Facebook ads, we can see these shifts in tactics and how the campaigns have changed their thinking about what voters want to hear about criminal justice in the final weeks before Election Day.
Trump’s message on criminal justice began with a focus on reform. Last December, his campaign ran ads featuring the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill he signed in 2018, boasting that the president was “helping prisoners gain a new lease on life and is making America safer.”
Then in May, for three days before Memorial Day—when George Floyd would die on a Minneapolis street—Trump spent more than $175,000 on ads criticizing Biden for his role in policies like the 1994 crime bill: “Mass incarceration has put hundreds of thousands behind bars for minor offenses.”
It’s not clear who those ads were meant to reach as they sought to capitalize on Biden’s “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black” quote in a May interview. They disappeared quickly as protests against police brutality began in cities across the country.
By early July, as the protests continued, the Trump campaign had decisively shifted its tone. In one ad, a 911 call is picked up by an answering machine that says, “You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call. If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1.”
Around that same time, Biden’s Facebook ads focused on praising essential workers dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and on vague messages of national unity.
You wouldn’t have seen any of these ads if you live in a state like California or Oklahoma that is considered a firm lock for one party. Biden’s were shown in a narrow group of swing states, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Trump campaign paid Facebook about $1.5 million to show its “911” ads only to people in a slightly wider list of battleground states that included Ohio and Texas. Since June, Trump’s campaign has spent about $2.6 million on criminal justice–related ads targeted to battleground states.
In the battleground states, these persuasive ads are not aimed at every voter. The power of Facebook for campaigns is that it allows them to show ads directly to the specific voters they think are most likely to be on the fence. The Trump campaign asked Facebook to show its “911” ad to at least two separate groups of people: first, to married women—the “suburban housewives” Trump has said he hopes to reach—and, second, to people specified by their name or phone number on a spreadsheet the campaign uploaded to Facebook.There are two main kinds of political ads on Facebook: ones intended to win votes and ones intended to encourage donations. That Trump’s “911” ad was presented to users in toss-up states suggests the goal was to persuade people to change their minds, according to digital political strategists. When either campaign wants to raise money, they show ads to their own supporters in uncontested states like deep blue New York where they’d be unlikely to pick up additional electoral votes.
Facebook doesn’t publish information on its ads’ target audiences. However, it does describe to individuals why they were shown a particular ad. The more than 7,000 participants in the Ad Observer project share this information automatically as they use the platform with New York University’s Online Political Transparency Project, which allows us to conduct this granular level of analysis. (Reporter Jeremy B. Merrill also contributes data analysis and software engineering to the Online Political Transparency Project.)
The Facebook ads give a strong signal of where campaigns are spending their money, what they’re saying, and who they’re paying to reach, but they do not make up the whole campaign. Even though Facebook is more transparent than other platforms, we only have that information for the small portion of ads spotted by Ad Observer’s participants. A candidate may also have a different strategy to reach voters with television, radio, or other online platforms.
Looking back at Trump’s early attempts to define his campaign message on criminal justice, Facebook data doesn’t indicate who he was aiming to reach with his “First Step Act” and mass incarceration ads. They could have been intended to persuade Black voters or to reassure whites whom the campaign was trying to convince of a softer tone on racial issues. The Trump campaign didn’t respond to questions about any of these advertisements or its strategy.
Campaigns have to walk a delicate line with persuasive ads: They want to hammer swing voters with the right message again and again. At the same time, they risk showing the wrong message to the wrong undecided voters and pushing them to other candidates. In contrast, fundraising ads are aimed at candidates’ core supporters, so they often focus on partisan slogans and political celebrities.
Since Trump’s ads in May blaming Biden for mass incarceration, his campaign has spent relatively little to tout his reform agenda to swing state voters. A set of fundraising ads listing policy achievements for Black Americans included, “✅ President Trump is working to reform our criminal justice system.” Those ads, however, were shown nationwide, including California and New York, and promised a “300% Match” of donations, signalling that they weren’t meant to persuade new voters. The $300,000 these ads cost was a tiny fraction of the roughly $6.6 million the Trump campaign spent on ads about crime and policing into mid-September.
Neither donors nor undecided voters were the apparent target of $20,000 worth of similar ads, which touted Trump’s support for “equality for ALL Americans,” criminal justice reform and increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities. The ads were targeted only to people in D.C., which has three electoral votes that have never gone to a Republican.
Over the course of the campaign, Trump has sought to paint the Biden campaign as both soft and too tough on crime. But at least on paper, Biden is running on the most progressive criminal justice platform from a presidential hopeful in a generation—and maybe ever. He’s pledged to end the use of private prisons, called the cash bail system a “modern-day debtors’ prison,” and has expressed support for a national standard on police use of force. By adding Kamala Harris to the ticket, the pair ostensibly shifted even further to the left, with the California senator having come out in favor of marijuana legalization and ending mandatory minimum sentencing. (They have said in no uncertain terms, however, they do not support defunding the police.)
The Democratic ticket’s ads on Facebook don’t mention any of that, and the Biden campaign didn’t respond to questions about its messaging. Facebook’s microtargeting capabilities would let the campaign show moderate voters a message about Biden’s long legislative history as a tough-on-crime, law and order Democrat or Harris’ background as a prosecutor, first as a district attorney and then as California attorney general. It would also allow the campaign to shield that message from progressives for whom Harris’ record has generated opprobrium from the left.
Instead, the Biden/Harris campaign has focused on gauzy ads about uniting the country and grim ones about the federal government’s coronavirus response. Of the $55 million Biden’s campaign has spent on Facebook this year, a paltry $8,000 has gone to ads specifically about criminal justice that were shown to users in only two states.
In the days after George Floyd’s death, the Biden campaign eschewed an opening to talk to moderate voters about its criminal justice platform. His ad that came closest to addressing policing or crime started June 3, saying, “As Trump fans the flames of white supremacy and hatred in our country, every last one of us shares a responsibility to stand up and pursue justice with every ounce of our being.” Because this ad, which Biden’s campaign paid $50,000 to run, did not mention policing, violence, protests or crime, our analysis did not count it among his criminal justice messages.
These ads were targeted to liberals nationwide, rather than to swing states, according to Ad Observer data. The ads solicited sign-ups for a petition—suggesting that they were meant to collect the email addresses of people who already support Biden—not to convince those on the fence.
Another similarly anodyne ad sent to users across the country said, “It’s time for equal opportunity, equal rights, and equal justice.”
In late August, the Biden campaign began to address crime and policing more directly. In an ad responding to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Biden said “protesting brutality is a right and absolutely necessary.” Reacting to Trump’s claim that he supports riots, Biden continued, “burning down communities is not protest, it’s needless violence, violence that endangers lives violence that guts businesses and shutters business that serve the community.”
That ad, and a counterpart, were shown only to Facebook users in Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota.
A TV ad announced by the Biden campaign called for conditioning federal funding for local police on their adoption of a new national standard on use of force and for “reining in” qualified immunity. But that ad doesn’t appear to have run on Facebook.
The Trump campaign is famed for the data analysis that backs its online advertising. So Trump may be sticking to his law and order message because he thinks it’s reaching voters he needs to win.
“When you have something that’s working, you run it until it stops working,” Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, said.
But what’s working for Trump may not be the criminal justice angle, per se. Indeed, even after Trump’s deluge of criminal justice ads, recent polls show most Americans think Biden will do a better job with criminal justice issues than Trump.
“Broadly, Donald Trump isn’t running a law and order campaign,” said Annie Levene, a Democratic digital strategist. “He’s running ads that are inflammatory and race-baiting, because he knows that sowing fear and division is the only way he can win.”
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, has been praised by pundits since the primaries for sticking to a strategy focused to woo the voters that they need to win. Strategists believe that the coronavirus, and not criminal justice, will get Biden the votes he needs on Election Day. “That’s a winning issue for the Biden campaign, people care about opening up the country safely and protecting people from getting sick,” Levene said. “Biden is focusing on his plan for that.”
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus