Political ad spending this year reached a whopping $8.5 billion
Bearing down on voters like an autumn storm that just wouldn’t let up, a stunning, overwhelming, gargantuan sum of political ad money was poured out during this election cycle: $8.5 billion in total. In the fall presidential contest alone, nearly $1.8 billion was spent.
As the clouds part and we lift our heads, a few things, broadly speaking, become clear. One, President-elect Joe Biden had a significant advantage in the ad-buying game—spending more money overall ($661 million on his own and more than $1 billion inclusive of Democratic groups) compared to President Donald Trump’s $500 million spend (more than $760 million, inclusive of Republican groups).
Remarkably, California—a state not in play for the presidential election—was the biggest recipient of ad dollars overall. Ballot propositions and competitive House races fueled a nearly $475 million gold rush of ad spending (including $373 million spent on ballot measures).
Looking at the eight most important markets in the eight states (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) crucial to the presidential race, Biden’s ad-spend advantage was overwhelming.
In seven of those eight markets (Charlotte, Detroit, Green Bay, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg), Biden out-advertised Trump in every daypart, in most cases by margin of more than 2-1, and often by a margin of more than 3-1.
Only in Atlanta was there parity in most dayparts—and strategically, Georgia was a nice-to-have for Biden and a must-have for Trump.
Phoenix, the biggest market for spending, demonstrates Arizona’s emergence as a battleground state. Miami, which got the most money of any Florida market, says a lot about the growing competition for Hispanic voters.
But ad tonnage was not the only way the two sides differed in this contest. Strategically speaking, the two candidates and their party and group allies deployed a different mix of paid-media strategies.
Trump and the Republicans spent a greater proportion of their budget on national cable and digital ads (because Biden had more to spend, the amount spent on digital by both sides was roughly equal in the end), and tended to eschew local cable.
Overall, there was a lot more spending on national advertising this year, likely in part because local spots were so expensive in the battleground states.
Buying national spots also gets a campaign out of “political blocks” where the message may get lost or muddled because the ad is packed in tightly with other candidates’ spots.
Campaigns especially love sports buys—because people watch live, and ratings are fairly high—and national buys there mean you’re hitting someone with a political ad when they aren’t expecting it. A palate cleanser, if you will, in between the Doritos and Bud Light.
National buys even crept into a Senate race. For example, college football fans across the country may have been surprised to see ads for the Michigan Senate race while watching the University of Michigan-Michigan State football game. This is striking. It meant that buyers for the campaign couldn’t get the spots they wanted in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing—or that it was just plain cheaper to make a national buy and live with the waste in the other 265 media markets.
Although digital has been in play in presidential campaigns for years, this is the first time it accounted for a meaningful share of both campaigns’ media budgets. Trump spent nearly 39% of his budget on digital; Biden, 25%. (Though again, the sums roughly matched due to overall higher Biden spending.)
But did any of these moves truly have a material impact on election outcomes? Just because we can measure political ad spend with a high degree of accuracy doesn’t mean we can attribute the Biden win to advertising alone. We should be wary of results-oriented punditry that makes this causal mistake.
In Senate races, Democratic challengers spent heavily in such states as Maine and South Carolina but came up short. Looking only at the presidential contest, it is safe to say that all that extra money spent by the Democrats did not lead to commensurate overperformance in the final tally.
Consider the case of Mike Bloomberg in particular, who by himself spent more than half a billion dollars this cycle, both on his own attempt to gain the Democratic nomination and on behalf of Joe Biden in Florida and Texas in the fall. To contort and paraphrase Winston Churchill: Never has so much been spent by so few for so little.
Although Democratic groups (including Bloomberg’s PAC) spent a lot of money in Florida and also played in Texas to no avail, Biden focused his spending in five electorally important states (Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) over the last week of the race. Biden won four of them (all but North Carolina). At CMAG, to normalize and create a comparable metric for presidential ad buys, we like to look at dollars spent per Electoral College vote.
Because political advertising is different from other advertising—selling an extra bottle of Coke is a different proposition from nabbing the half percentage point of crucial votes in a swing state—even if there was waste in some areas, in others it’s likely that the ad spend helped. The presidential race was decided by a percentage point or less in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona.