Editor’s note: Ad Age’s Campaign Ad Scorecard is taking a deep dive into political-ad spending across federal-level and gubernatorial races throughout the 2019-2020 political cycle. See more at AdAge.com/CampaignTrail.
Right now when it comes to the U.S. presidential race, it seems like political campaign advertising isn’t working terribly well for the highest rollers.
Take a look at the main chart below. The biggest spender on TV and radio ads, according to an Ad Age Datacenter analysis in partnership with Kantar/CMAG, is presidential candidate Tom Steyer, the California hedge fund billionaire. From the start of his campaign on July 9, he’s spent an astonishing $34.9 million (through Oct. 21, including advance bookings) on TV and radio ads, plus another $8.6 million on Facebook ads according to the social network’s own accounting, for a total of $43.5 million.
What’s that gotten him? A resounding “Tom who now?” response from most Americans. Steyer barely squeaked onto the last Democratic debate stage on Oct. 15; his polling has been hovering in the single digits—low enough that he didn’t even qualify for the previous debates. (A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released last week puts Steyer at 3 percent.)
If you can’t remember his name, maybe just think of him as “Anti-Trump”—because Steyer is also funding an ongoing advertising campaign from his Need to Impeach group, which has separately spent millions advocating against President Trump. NTI recently announced that it’s been bankrolling $3.1 million in ads (roughly half on TV, half on digital) throughout October targeting selected Republican senators up for reelection. “Tell Susan Collins to put country over party” (i.e., tell her to support impeachment), one such TV ad running in Maine says.
Meanwhile, the second-biggest spender on TV/radio, and the leader in Facebook spending, is Trump—and his ad blitz has coincided with rising support for his removal from office. (A FiveThirtyEight meta-analysis of various polls shows that 50 percent are pro-impeachment vs. 43.1 against, as of Oct. 23.)
Trump has spent $7.9 million on TV/radio ads—outspending Elizabeth Warren’s $6.9 million, Joe Biden’s $5.3 million and Pete Buttigieg’s $2.5 million—which still puts him far behind Steyer’s $34.9 million. On Facebook, Trump is outspending everyone with his $13.5 million outlay.
The end result of all this? The current cycle’s biggest overall spender, Steyer, can’t seem to get meaningful traction for himself (though maybe his pro-impeachment efforts are having some effect), while the sitting president, with his Facebook ad blitz, hasn’t been able to keep half of Americans from turning against him.
Of course, the relentless news cycle—with its endless focus on Ukraine-related drama—is likely drowning out even the most repetitive political ad messaging.
That’s not stopping Mr. Anti-Trump, though. The Los Angeles Times just reported that Tom Steyer is “on track to join the biggest self-funding political candidates in American history.” So far he’s been burning through, on average, more than half a million dollars a day on his campaign—overwhelmingly to fund TV, radio and Facebook advertising.
And, oh yeah, we’re still more than a year away from Election Day.
Ad Age Datacenter is Kevin Brown, Bradley Johnson and Catherine Wolf