Editor’s note: This post includes spending data analysis by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown, with web production by Corey Holmes. Scroll down to see the chart.
When it comes to the advertising tally for the U.S. presidential election so far, a good rule of thumb is: Nothing is as it seems.
More about that in a moment, but first the topline: Republicans and Democrats have spent a combined total of $1.3 billion on presidential campaign advertising, according to the latest Ad Age Campaign Ad Scorecard analysis—an ongoing project led by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown in partnership with Kantar/CMAG. That tally (again, this is for presidential campaigns only) includes broadcast TV, cable, radio and digital across Facebook and Google properties (from Jan. 1, 2019, through Election Day, including advance booking of ad space that had been purchased by June 12, 2020).
Now the context and caveats:
• Democrats—the various candidates’ campaigns plus pro-Democrat PACs—have spent just over 89 percent, or $1.2 billion, of that total. The advantage, as always, goes to the incumbent. President Trump got to conserve cash (and build up his war chest) while Democrats tore each other apart during the primary season.
• Though former Democratic candidates Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer seem like distant memories at this point, they both (Bloomberg especially) still cast large shadows over the 2019-2020 presidential election cycle. Their self-financed campaigns badly distorted ad-spend tallies; together the two candidates account for nearly 61 percent of the above $1.3 billion total.
• Subtract Bloomberg and Steyer, and it turns out the other Democrats—including presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden—have spent just 39.4 percent of the $1.3 billion campaign ad total.
• Biden’s campaign has more overall booked advance spending—$76 million—from June 16 through Election Day, vs. the Trump campaign’s $26 million over the same time period. That, of course, could change at any moment.
• So far, Trump is far ahead of Biden in deploying digital advertising across Facebook and Google properties. The incumbent has spent $52 million combined on tracked digital—largely in the form of fundraising appeals directed as his base—while the challenger stands at $23 million to date.
• Some of the highest-profile advertising this cycle has come not from the campaigns themselves, but from outside groups. See for instance, Ad Age’s coverage of an anti-Trump ad from a Republican PAC, The Lincoln Project, that stops short of actually endorsing Biden: “Conservative group’s new ad slams ‘coward’ Trump for turning D.C. into a ‘war zone.’”
• On the surface of it, that’s good news for Biden, right? His campaign gets to save some cash while an outside group—a Republican one, at that—does the work of attacking Trump. The only problem is, as we’ve seen again and again, attacking Trump does little to dissuade his base.
• Trump, meanwhile, gets automatic media mindshare by virtue of holding the highest office in the land—and he’s busy shifting back into MAGA-rally mode, which will afford his campaign tens of millions (at least) in free media exposure.
• The Trump campaign has meanwhile been issuing its own attack ads; see, for instance, “Years,” an ad released last week that slams Joe Biden’s position on China over the years.
Can Trump and pro-Trump PACs erode support for Biden by gradually chipping away at the positive feelings his supporters have for him? The short answer is “almost certainly”—but going after Biden specifically may not matter that much in the grand scheme of things, because attack advertising is just a part of ... uh, let’s just say, a much more comprehensive approach to the election cycle. See “Why the Republicans’ 2020 strategy is to keep as many people as possible from voting,” from The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt.
Hiatt writes, in part,
The GOP has gone to great lengths to shrink and control the voter rolls, particularly trying to impede young people and black people from voting. Many of their methods predate the coronavirus pandemic: obstructive voter-ID laws; closing polling places in selected neighborhoods so that voters must travel long distances or wait in long lines; impeding voting in college towns; finding pretexts to scrub voters from the rolls; opposing automatic or same-day registration; blocking former prisoners from voting, even when (as in Florida) nearly two-thirds of voters approve a referendum saying former felons who have served their time should be allowed to vote.
Now, in coronavirus time, they have gone into overdrive, doing everything they can to block the orderly issuing and processing of absentee ballots, which will be essential in November if the virus is still rampaging. They limit access as narrowly as possible where they are in control, as in Texas; they sue where they are not, as in California.
In other words, there’s an election strategy at play here that transcends—if that’s the right word—mere advertising.