What's next for an election cycle rocked by the pandemic
Editor’s note: This post includes spending data analysis by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown. Scroll down to see the charts.
“Remember the election?” That was the question posed in a newsletter blast from The Atlantic, the venerable American magazine of culture and politics, last Monday. (What election?)
By Tuesday, we were indeed briefly aware of the election—inasmuch as everyone was wondering if that day’s Democratic primaries would proceed during the coronavirus pandemic.
By Wednesday morning, it was clear that some guy named Joe Biden had swept the states that went ahead with voting, and some other guy named Bernie Sanders was rumored to be suspending his campaign (but as of this writing hasn’t).
And by Thursday, just as Tulsi Gabbard (Tulsi who?) threw in the towel, we were back to more or less forgetting the election—our memory banks wiped clean by the latest surge of horrifying data points about COVID-19 infection rates and deaths.
But the election still exists. Lots of major elections—for president of the United States, plus various congressional and gubernatorial gigs. And given that the fate of our republic seems to hinge in part on whether our government can lead us out of the abyss of the pandemic, those elections do still matter.
And so Ad Age, led by Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown, in partnership with Kantar/CMAG, continues to doggedly track the ad spending for all those campaigns as a way of trying to make sense of their momentum and strategies.
Some insights to accompany the charts that appear on these pages:
North Carolina leads
Across the U.S. Senate races tracked by Datacenter, North Carolina has seen the biggest barrage of TV and radio ads: $21.1 million’s worth in a race that pits Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis against former State Senator Cal Cunningham. The reason: Tillis is seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the U.S. Senate, so this race—including a costly Democratic primary—has drawn a flood of campaign donations, on both sides, from North Carolina and beyond.
North Carolina TV and radio ad spending alone accounts for nearly a quarter of the total spend among all U.S. Senate races.
Maine is right behind
Maine is No. 2, thanks to incumbent Republican Susan Collins, who has positioned herself as a moderate for most of her political career but has come under fire from actual moderates, and of course liberals, as she’s increasingly hewed to party-line voting on contentious issues. Maine deploys instant-runoff voting, set for June 9, and Collins’ expected challenger, Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon, has crept ahead in some polls. Collins has been in the Senate since 1997 and has repeatedly won reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Maine has seen $16.5 million of Senate TV and radio ad spending so far.
A sudden new wrinkle as of last week
The emergency coronavirus relief package passed the U.S. Senate with a vote of 90 to 8. Those voting against the measure were Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), James Lankford (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Ron Johnson (R-WI).
Considering that the relief package is widely seen as not only being literally life-saving but an essential step toward keeping the U.S. economy from plunging off a cliff, the eight dissenting senators might have some explaining to do. But only two will really have to do so in any meaningful way in the short-term, as only Inhofe and Sasse are up for re-election this fall.
Further complicating matters: By the end of the week an insider trading scandal blew up around a group of U.S. senators who appear to have quietly dumped stocks before the market tanked, all while taking in dire private government briefings but in some cases publicly downplaying the threat of the pandemic. Inhofe is among those apparent stock-dumpers.
The bottom line: We can expect a fresh surge of fundraising—and an absolute flood of advertising—around those Oklahoma and Nebraska Senate seats.
One more high-profile U.S. Senate race to watch
Another U.S. Senate race to watch is going down in Alabama, where former U.S. Attorney General—and Trump punching bag—Jeff Sessions hopes to unseat Democratic incumbent Doug Jones—but first Sessions has to fend off Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville is not only a former Auburn University football coach, but earlier this month scored Trump’s endorsement. Sessions and Tuberville are scheduled for a runoff in July (delayed from March 30 due to the pandemic), with the winner taking on Jones in November.
Alabama has so far endured $5.9 million of TV and radio ads surrounding this U.S. Senate seat.
Dem vs. GOP spending
So far Democrats are outspending Republicans—$51.3 million to $39.1 million—on TV and radio across all U.S. Senate races. Republicans are outspending Democrats—$31.1 million to $20.9 million—across all U.S. House races. Total Senate-race TV and radio spending stands at $90.5 million, vs. the $52.4 million total for U.S. House races.
Here’s another opportunity to jog your memory: Remember Mike Bloomberg?
If you don’t, that’s fine, because for the sake of argument we’re going to delete his mega-
millions from the ad-spending tallies for the biggest prize—the U.S. presidency—to make a point. Democrats, not counting Bloomberg, have burned through more than $600 million in pursuit of the White House; that total includes not only TV and radio, but digital spending across Google and Facebook properties. The Republicans—the Trump campaign, mostly—have spent just over $67 million.
Trump got to conserve cash for the general election while the Democrats devoured each other and their respective budgets during primary season. And now the pandemic-induced stock market crash and recession, which has even the wealthiest Americans feeling, well, less wealthy, will surely cause political donors to tighten their wallets.
Of course, Trump has to run against his record on not only his response to the coronavirus pandemic, but on what’s become of the U.S. economy on his watch.
Then again, with Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, effectively out of the running (whether he makes it official or not), Trump is suddenly promising big coronavirus-relief checks to all Americans. And his base has been taking to social media to un-ironically thank him for this act of, well, socialism. (Handouts are completely unacceptable—until you need one yourself.)
Last Thursday Trump released a video on his YouTube titled “Join the Army for Trump,” which was meant figuratively, not literally—but of course the wartime/warmongering rhetoric is not accidental. Just as Trump’s persistent branding of COVID-19 as “the Chinese Virus” is meant to stoke the xenophobia that’s been at the core of his political messaging from Day One.
These are powerful currents, and even in a time of global crisis Trump is proving that he’s not only able to stay on message, but he’s more than happy to double down.
What kind of advertising and messaging can Biden deploy to counter that? How much will he even have to spend? Stay tuned.