This week, Wall Street and Washington, DC, are buzzing about the power of money in politics. No wonder: Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, has thrown his hat into the race for Democratic presidential nominee and plans to use his billionaire largesse to campaign.
Last Friday alone, Bloomberg reportedly spent about US$30 million ($46.7m) on a blitz of television ads. This sparked a wave of furious anti-billionaire complaints from his rivals in the Democratic race (never mind that his TV ads are not very compelling).
But as political hacks pontificate about TV spots, there is another detail about the contest that has not received as much attention as it should: the ad money being thrown at digital platforms such as Facebook and Google.
Until three years ago, this was a topic most Democrats tended to ignore, partly because it was widely presumed that political advertising on platforms such as Facebook was less important than TV spots.
But it was also because the Democrats blithely assumed that they held a strong advantage over Republicans in cyberspace after Barack Obama's successful digital campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
The 2016 race showed that these assumptions were wrong. Digital advertising can pack a more powerful punch than TV. While the Democrats used to be ahead of the Republicans in this sphere, the online campaign unleashed for Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential run (using the now discredited research group Cambridge Analytica) was more adept than anything produced by the Democrats, partly because it introduced a level of personalised messaging and manipulated "facts" that left civic-minded observers howling with outrage.
Three years later, the shock of that defeat for the Democrats – and the Cambridge Analytica scandal – is sparking a fightback. Some start-ups, supported by Democrats, are trying to harness digital tools to combat Trump online. Others are seeking to track political advertising online to create some transparency, for the first time.
However, this has received relatively little attention among voters or Democrats. That is a pity.
Consider the findings of the start-up Acronym, which was launched in the aftermath of the 2016 election by Tara McGowan, a charismatic young Washington techie who was a key part of Obama's digital team in 2012.
Its weekly newsletter on digital spending suggests that, in the week from November 10 to November 16 (the last data available as this column went to press), the Democratic presidential candidate that spent most heavily on Google and Facebook advertising was Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist, who shelled out US$1.4m.
This might surprise many observers, since Steyer is polling so low in the primary race that he has been largely invisible in mainstream news. However, his team has used targeted social media to attract grassroots donations (needed to keep him in the debates) and to spread environmental messages.
Despite Steyer's poor polling numbers, this seems to be helping to shift the wider debate about green issues among Democrats.
Another candidate, Pete Buttigieg, has been in second place to Steyer in recent weeks but his overall digital spending for the year (at US$9m) is bigger than any other leading Democratic candidate: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders lag slightly behind, while Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are considerably lower.
This is striking. But what is doubly notable is that Acronym calculates that Trump's team has dropped about US$28m on Google and Facebook advertising since last year's midterm elections — far more than any Democrat. This is set to accelerate, the Acronym newsletter says, noting: "His team continues to run Facebook ads calling impeachment a hoax and pushing videos ripping 'little Adam Schiff'" (the Democratic lawmaker chairing the impeachment proceedings).
But Trump may finally be about to face a proper foe in cyberspace. According to Acronym, Bloomberg plans to spend US$100m on swing-state, anti-Trump digital advertising on top of his anticipated presidential campaign.
Is this a good thing? Some observers think not. Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the world wide web, wrote an impassioned column in The New York Times this week calling for a ban on all digital political campaigns. Twitter has already taken action on this, and Facebook and Google claim they are also tightening controls.
However, the harsh truth is that even as groups such as Twitter step back, new digital channels are emerging. Acronym points out that rightwing, pro-Trump groups have recently started to use the Chinese-owned video platform TikTok, which is popular with millennials, to spread their message.
This leaves figures such as McGowan concluding that Democrats must join the fight. "The Democrats fell behind the Republicans in 2016 because the Republicans had more incentive to innovate… they leapfrogged us," she says.
"But I feel very confident that the Democrats are now going to use every [digital] tool and channel available to them… 2016 was a wake-up call and we know we need to be humble and embrace new strategies."
The 2020 race, in other words, might yet make Trump's digital onslaught seem almost tame. Think of that when you see the next Bloomberg TV ad.
Written by: Gillian Tett
© Financial Times