Why the PACs will be more important than ever in the pandemic election cycle
Editor’s note: This post includes spending data analysis by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown. Scroll down to see the chart.
Two weeks ago in this space, in more innocent times, we posed a simple question: Remember Mike Bloomberg? He’d just ended his White House bid (on March 4), but already seemed like ancient history. Now we’re compelled to ask: Remember Joe Biden? And remember Bernie Sanders?
It’s not just the coronavirus crisis that has largely displaced the remaining Democratic presidential candidates from our collective consciousness. President Trump has been able to further entrench his monopoly on media time (exceeded only by the coronavirus itself) with his lengthy daily press conferences.
They’re technically coronavirus briefings, but also function as extended infomercials for the Trump-in-wartime brand, as he blankets (and pillows, with the MyPillow guy) the airwaves. In effect, the networks have been broadcasting ad hoc MAGA rallies—the Donald Trump on view in these briefings is typically as brash and self-congratulatory as the Donald Trump beloved by red-state stadium crowds—to a captive audience of millions of self-quarantined Americans.
Meanwhile, Biden and Sanders, forced to suspend their rallies, have also dramatically curtailed advertising. In fact, per the latest Ad Age Campaign Ad Scorecard analysis—led by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown in partnership with Kantar/CMAG—Biden’s total ad spending on TV, radio and digital has yet to surpass that of Pete Buttigieg.
You read that right: The presumed winner of the Democratic nomination has so far spent less on ads ($35.8 million, through April 1, including advance bookings) than a primary-season loser named Mayor Pete ($36.8 million).
The Democrats are also up against history: As Wired’s Gilad Edelman explains, when it comes to perceptions of presidential performance, an “approval bump due to major crises or wars is one of the most consistent patterns in American politics”—the so-called “rally-around-the-flag effect.” Given that Trump has, indeed, seen an approval-ratings bump, we can conclude that his daily in-kind donations to his reelection campaign, in the form of those White House pandemic briefings, have been working, right? Well, sort of.
Wired’s Edelman cites the four-point upward swing Trump had enjoyed through March 13 (shifting from 42 percent approval to 46 percent per FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker), then notes that “the surprising thing ... is how small the bump has been”—vs., say, FDR after Pearl Harbor (a 12-point boost) or George W. Bush after 9/11 (40 points).
The problem is that Trump’s “rally-around-the-flag” bump has been bumping up against not only the catastrophic reality of skyrocketing illness, death and economic devastation, but Trump’s own words. On Feb. 26, the president insisted that there were really only about 15 cases of coronavirus in the U.S., and “the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” By March 29, Trump not only belatedly acknowledged the gravity of the crisis, but was also suddenly embracing the grim mortality projections of health experts—while still, confoundingly, remaining in self-congratulatory mode. The headlines, such as “What kind of person calls 100,000-plus dead a ‘very good job’?” (The Washington Post), were brutal.
Trump’s pandemic-related soundbites, of course, amount to ready-made attack ads—on himself. Biden’s campaign has produced such ads, doing little more than quoting the president’s pronouncements, but has little cash to air them. Biden (and Sanders) had to burn through enormous sums throughout the primary season. And like just about everyone else over the past few weeks, the Dems are newly cash-strapped—and grappling with hobbled fund-raising machines.
Enter the political action committees—war chests (in some cases, mysterious dark-money war chests) that are set to have an even more pronounced wild-card effect on the current election cycle thanks to the state of the economy. According to Datacenter’s analysis, PACs have targeted major funds to back advertising on a state-by-state basis, with North Carolina ($58.0 million), Iowa ($35.9 million) and Arizona ($27.7 million) leading the way, thanks in large part to vulnerable Senate seats that need to be defended or could be flipped.
Which brings us to one more question: Remember the congressional and Senate races? Yeah, they’re still on. That is, assuming the current wave of coronavirus-related postponements don’t extend to the fall (when some epidemiologists fear a viral resurgence).
With the mirage effect of Mike Bloomberg’s ad-spending funny money now a distant memory (along with that of his also-forgotten fellow billionaire rival Tom Steyer), the PAC cash is basically the last meaningful big pot of money left. (Except for the cache of cash the Trump campaign has in the bank.)
The story of the political campaigns over the next few months will be one of, yes, triage—extreme resource management and competition for advertising funds—in an election where hundreds of thousands of lives are quite literally at stake.