How much is a U.S. Senate seat worth? That depends
As we collectively stumble toward the finish line of the 2019-2020 election cycle, Ad Age Campaign Ad Scorecard—an ongoing project led by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown in partnership with Kantar/CMAG—has some hard-won insights to share based on a lot of nitty-gritty math. We’ve been keeping track of various campaigns’ TV and radio ad spending, as well as digital ad spending across Facebook and Google properties (where available, as self-reported by those platforms) since Jan. 1, 2019, and the numbers in the charts you see on these pages include advance TV and radio bookings through Election Day. Here’s what you need to know:
Democratic Party presidential ad spend remains weirdly distorted for two reasons
When it comes to advertising outlay this election cycle, at first glance it seems that Democrats have way outspent Republicans in pursuit of the White House: $1.89 billion vs. $674 million, as tracked by Ad Age Datacenter. But the Democratic total is almost absurdly distorted by the presence, during primary season, of two free-spending billionaires: Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer (remember them?), who together burned through $815 million in tracked ad buys. And of course there was a wide field of other high-profile wannabes who ultimately dropped out after each spending typically tens of millions of dollars on advertising in pursuit of the Democratic Party presidential nomination that Joe Biden ultimately clinched.
Trump trails Biden in tracked ad spending
That said, President Donald Trump is more than $100 million behind Biden in tracked ad spending. That’s to be expected given that, as the incumbent, Trump got to sit on his campaign cash while Biden fended off competitors from his own party during primary season.
Bloomberg still beats Biden in ad spending
As of this writing, Biden, with $537 million in tracked ad spending, is still, remarkably, behind Bloomberg’s total of $593 million.
Four PACs have bigfooted the U.S. Senate race
Of the $1.6 billion in tracked advertising spent in pursuit of, or to hold on to, U.S. Senate seats, just four PACs together spent 29% of the total. The Republicans’ Senate Leadership Fund and National Republican Senatorial Committee, with a combined $239 million, are closely followed by the Democrats’ two big funds, Senate Majority PAC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which together have dropped $237 million so far.
PACs have had even more outsize influence on House races
When it comes to political ad spending in pursuit of, or in defense of, U.S. House of Representatives seats, four giant PACs spent 39% of the $876 million tracked by Ad Age Datacenter. House Majority PAC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are holding at $180 million combined. The two big Republican PACs, Congressional Leadership Fund and National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, have placed $162 million in media buys.
Louisiana has seen the biggest-bucks gubernatorial race
Some gubernatorial races are over; Louisiana, where Democrat John Bel Edwards won in 2019, accounts for $53 million in tracked ad spending. Elections in Montana, North Carolina, Kentucky (won by Democrat Andy Beshear in 2019) and Missouri all show spending at or close to $30 million. No other gubernatorial race had more than $12 million in total spending this cycle.
North Carolina has seen the biggest political ad blitz in the nation
When it comes to state-by-state political ad spending, North Carolina beats Florida, $399 million to $393 million, per Datacenter’s tracking. Keep in mind that the Tar Heel State’s population is a lot less than the Sunshine State’s (10.5 million vs. 21.5 million), which makes the barrage of advertising targeted at North Carolinians even more insane on a per-capita basis.
Buy buy buy
How much is a U.S. Senate seat worth? That depends. In North Carolina, U.S. Senate incumbent Republican Tom Tillis is running against Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham, and the total tracked ad spending for this seat (including during primary season) is hovering around $200 million, putting this race neck-and-neck with Iowa’s $195 million battle—which pits incumbent Republican Joni Ernst against Democratic nominee Theresa Greenfield—in the meta-race for the Most Spendy U.S. Senate Race Ever “honors.” Meanwhile, in Arizona, what a bargain! Democrat Mark Kelly has burned through a mere $53 million in tracked ad spending to attempt to unseat Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Martha McSally ($26 million).