For a tangible sense of just a portion of the cost of the ridiculously drawn-out, outrageously wasteful U.S. election-industrial complex, take a look at the exclusive charts herewith, produced by Ad Age Datacenter in partnership with Kantar/CMAG.
For starters, glance at our presidential campaign TV and radio ad-spending tally, below. At the tippy top, there’s Tom Steyer. If your reaction is “Who?” you’re with the vast majority of Americans—but props if you know he’s a California hedge fund billionaire on a quixotic quest. Steyer spent nearly $19.6 million on ads (through Sept. 23) trying to buy his way onto the Democratic debate stages; he failed, of course, repeatedly having fallen short of the minimum polling thresholds needed to qualify.
|4||North Carolina U.S. House seats||17.4|
|5||North Carolina U.S. Senate||8.9|
|7||Arizona U.S. Senate||4.0|
|8||Georgia U.S. Senate||3.8|
|9||Iowa U.S. Senate||3.6|
|10||Kentucky U.S. Senate||3.5|
(1) For presidential, gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and U.S. House races.
|#||Candidate/sponsor (party affiliation)||Ad spending|
|1||Tom Steyer (D)||$19.6|
|2||Kirsten Gillibrand (D)||1.6|
|3||Judicial Crisis Network (R)||1.2|
|4||Need to Impeach (D)||1.2|
|5||Tulsi Gabbard (D)||0.9|
|6||Pete Buttigieg (D)||0.9|
|7||Presidential Coalition (R)||0.8|
|8||Joe Biden (D)||0.7|
|9||John Delaney (D)||0.6|
|10||Shirley Shawe (anti-Biden)||0.6|
Includes spending for candidates who may have dropped out of the race.
But he’s still plugging away—and he also pops up again in our ranking as the man-behind-the-curtain at No. 4, since he’s the backer of the Need to Impeach campaign, which is basically the anybody-but-Trump ticket.
The second-biggest spender is someone who did actually manage a little face time on the debate stages (at least the first two)—Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior U.S. senator from New York. But her marginal polling softened to the point that she failed to qualify for the third Democratic debate, and she dropped her presidential bid in late August, after having spent $1.6 million on ads to win exactly zero votes.
Among those who are expected to secure some votes along the way—i.e., the subset of contenders who could last until the primaries—is former Vice President Joe Biden, who has spent $688,373 on ads so far. (Of note: Spending by Biden and the other candidates includes advance bookings through 2020, as of Sept 23.) But with his assorted gaffes and foggy debate performances, Biden has already arguably negated the branding and goodwill value of those buys elsewhere on the campaign trail, giving the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, an opening to challenge his front-runner status with, so far, no spending on TV and radio ads.
Meanwhile, one of the top 10 spenders (to the tune of $617,738) in the presidential race is a non-candidate, a private citizen named Shirley Shawe who’s been paying to air anti-Biden ads over a disagreement she has with him related to the Delaware Chancery Court system (don’t ask).
Have we mentioned that we’re still more than a year away from Election Day? Also, these numbers exclude digital ad spending (more on that in a bit).
Of course, given that there’s only one job up for grabs here (or two, if you count the VP on the ticket), a list this early in the game is by definition mostly made up of (inevitable) losers.
Shift your view to our overall spending-by-party chart, and at least we’re talking about ad outlays with better odds, given the dozens of gubernatorial and hundreds of congressional seats in play. Datacenter analysis shows that at the moment Republicans are outspending Democrats on TV and radio ads across non-presidential federal-level races. The biggest sums of money being spent so far are for gubernatorial races, with Republicans burning through $31 million and Dems $26 million.
|Percent of total||43.9%||34.6%||21.6%||100.0%|
(1) Largely attributable to spending by Doctor Patient Unity.
And in a category of its own in terms of spending ($26.9 million): The secretive advocacy group Doctor Patient Unity, which has been running ads in North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere that take on individual senators (primarily) over “surprise [medical] billing.” Conglomerates TeamHealth and Envision Healthcare are funding the blitz, The New York Times reported earlier this month.
All told, across federal-level and gubernatorial races, we’re looking at $148 million spent so far on TV and radio ads in the current cycle.
Now a word about digital campaign ad spending. Though it’s expected to rise once again in this cycle—stay tuned to Campaign Trail for data on that front—Kantar/CMAG projects that it will still top out at only about 20 percent of overall spending.
So once again the real winners of this cycle will mostly be good old-fashioned media companies. Kantar/CMAG expects TV broadcasters to pull in $3.2 billion, cable $1.2 billion and radio $400 million from candidates and their campaigns.
For non-political marketers, that’s really bad news—because it means less inventory and higher prices, particularly in battleground states.
For media consumers who will endure billions of dollars’ worth of (inevitably, increasingly negative) ads, it’s downright depressing.
Ad Age Datacenter is Kevin Brown, Bradley Johnson and Catherine Wolf.