Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign has sharply scaled back his online advertising, cutting spending so severely since August that he is now investing only a fraction of what his top rivals are on Facebook and Google, the two dominant internet platforms.
In a race where many voters are following politics on their smartphones, Mr. Biden’s pullback is an unusual and potentially worrisome sign about his appeal among the Democratic activists, young people and donors who are especially engaged on social media. Candidates rarely withdraw so much money from their online campaigns unless they are seeing weak results in online fund-raising, according to interviews with digital strategists.
As the candidates make their final pitches to donors before a quarterly fund-raising deadline at midnight Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and other top rivals are outspending Mr. Biden online. He was only the sixth biggest Democratic spender on Facebook ads in the seven days ending Thursday, even as he was at the center of a swirling national controversy involving President Trump, Ukraine and impeachment.
Instead, he has shifted his spending priorities toward traditional tactics like buying television ads in Iowa. But that strategy has not paid dividends so far: Ms. Warren, a leading rival for the 2020 nomination, recently surpassed him in a key Iowa poll.
Mr. Biden’s campaign strategy has been driven, from the start, by the political assumption that the Democratic electorate is more moderate than the progressives who are often loudest online, and he has built his candidacy around appealing to older and more centrist voters. But strategists say Mr. Biden’s online pullback is risky if he hopes to engage and build support among a broader cross-section of Democrats that is almost certainly necessary to win the nomination.
“It’s clear that there’s something in the numbers that’s directing them to go in that direction, and the likeliest explanation is that the rate of return just wasn’t there for Facebook and Google,” said Tim Lim, a veteran Democratic digital strategist unaligned in 2020. “Which is very, very unusual.”
Zac Moffatt, a Republican strategist who led digital operations for Mitt Romney’s presidential run, said abandoning a medium used heavily by so many “reeks of desperation.”
“You are spending at least a third to half your life on your mobile phone, and they’re deciding they don’t need to have a message for you there,” Mr. Moffatt said.
Online spending serves two purposes: Promoting the candidates’ messages and raising money. But if Mr. Biden struggles to collect small donations online, he will have to depend more on traditional donors and bundlers while his two leading rivals, Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, emphasize their grass-roots support.
The decline of Mr. Biden’s online spending has been precipitous. He entered the race in April as one of the contest’s biggest digital advertisers, spending $1.2 million on Facebook and Google in his first two weeks. Now he is toward the back of the pack.
During a 30-day stretch leading up to the September debate, Mr. Biden, who has regularly led the field in national polls, ranked 16th among the Democratic presidential candidates for advertising on Facebook, spending only $32,000 — placing the former vice president behind two candidates who dropped out during that period and five who did not make the debate stage.
And on Google, his spending plunged to $300 during one week in August — less than one-thousandth of what he spent in his first week as a candidate, when campaigns often spend the most. Ms. Warren spent $66,000 that same week.
The Biden campaign cast its diminishing digital footprint as part of a broader strategy.
“Our campaign invested a robust digital spend early on to build out supporter lists, outspending all other campaigns from our launch through most of the summer,” said T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for Mr. Biden. “By strategically front-loading our investment, we were able to rapidly expand our reach early, instead of meting out our spend over a longer period of time.”
Mr. Biden’s digital spending has ticked up in recent days, as he bought a slate of Facebook ads related to Mr. Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate the Biden family (“Stand with Joe,” some ads say). The exploding story line about foreign interference and impeachment has been good for Mr. Biden’s bottom line: A campaign official said the past week was Mr. Biden’s best for fund-raising since the second week of his campaign.
While Mr. Biden’s Facebook ads, like his stump speech, have focused heavily on Mr. Trump, records show he has also tested messages on health care, Medicare, the Supreme Court and guns.
The Biden campaign noted that it was still investing in other online platforms that make less advertising data available to the public, such as Spotify, Amazon and Hulu. And the campaign said it was planning a “seven-figure” digital ad buy in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Mr. Biden began his campaign with a show of strength, raising $6.3 million in the first 24 hours from nearly 100,000 people. He began with a key advantage: Formerly President Barack Obama’s running mate, he had access to the old email list from the Obama campaigns. Daily fund-raising data through June shows that Mr. Biden’s first days were his strongest for attracting online donations.
But in the last six weeks for which data is available, Mr. Biden spent a meager $20,900 on Google, a platform that includes both the internet’s dominant search engine and YouTube. In that same six-week span, Ms. Warren spent more than 25 times as much: $553,700.
“It is not a good sign for his campaign,” said Marne Pike, the chief executive of a Democratic digital strategy firm not affiliated with any 2020 candidate. “I would have a very hard time imagining no one was searching for Joe Biden and clicking on the ads.”
It was a similar story on Facebook. There, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has been the top spender, outpacing Mr. Biden in the last 30 days by a ratio of about 12 to 1.
Mr. Biden is being outspent by candidates who, like him, are household names with big campaign budgets (like Mr. Sanders, by more than 7 to 1 in the last 30 days), and also by lesser-known figures (the former housing secretary Julián Castro, who has struggled to raise money, by more than 2 to 1).
As Mr. Biden has withdrawn from Facebook and Google, he has bought up more than $700,000 in television ads in recent weeks in Iowa. Despite those ads, Ms. Warren recently edged ahead of him in the closely monitored Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers.
Mr. Ducklo, the Biden spokesman, said small contributions “have been essential to getting our campaign message in front of voters: funding our television ads in Iowa and rapidly expanding the field operations in the early states that is knocking doors and making calls.”
Andrew Bleeker, president of the Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, said that Mr. Biden’s more moderate position in the Democratic primary could make it harder to raise money online. “From a brand perspective, he can’t be that incendiary and that’s what’s rewarded online,” he said.
Keegan Goudiss, who served as Mr. Sanders’s director of digital advertising in 2016 but is unaligned in 2020, agreed: “Joe Biden hasn’t thrown the kind of red meat he needs to throw to do well online.”
Mr. Biden has also wrapped his candidacy in an aura of inevitability, which does not allow him to sound the alarm to supporters, a tactic that can juice online giving. (Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, for instance, recently scored his biggest day for online donations when he said he would quit the 2020 race if he failed to raise $1.7 million by the end of this month.)
One startling measure of Mr. Biden’s diminished online fund-raising ambition is the goal his campaign announced for the last days of September: raising $500,000.
By contrast, Mr. Buttigieg set out to raise $1.5 million online, Senator Kamala Harris of California $1 million, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas $750,000 and the businessman Andrew Yang $1.5 million.
At this juncture in the election cycle — with the first primary votes still more than four months away — most campaigns with spare money are still spending heavily online for what they call “acquisition”: convincing people to give their email addresses through petition drives, online surveys and the like. Those people are then wooed to become donors.
But for Mr. Biden, an analysis of both the content and geographic distribution of his ads suggests he had mostly abandoned trying to acquire new online donors in the last month — at least until the recent Ukraine controversy. The Biden campaign said it had put $40,000 into ads over two days last week, more than it spent on Facebook during that recent 30-day stretch.
The ads that Mr. Biden has been running target an older electorate than that of his top rivals, according to demographic data collected by Bully Pulpit. An overwhelming share of his spending on Facebook — 84 percent — has targeted voters who are 45 or older.
Compare that to Mr. Sanders, who recently touted that the most common age among his donors is 29. Only one-third of his Facebook ad budget has targeted those above 45.