The disparity isn’t just limited to the Monday Night Football game or to Arizona, a once reliably Republican state that’s now a hotly contested battleground. It’s playing out across the dial on TV sets nationwide in the broader presidential campaign. Biden is saturating the airwaves and outgunning his opponent by a margin of about $178 million in ad buys from June 1 through Election Day, according to data from the media-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
Beyond the messages that both sides relay in their commercials, the ad buys themselves tell the story of the state of the presidential race — particularly the way that the Biden campaign deployed freighter-loads of cash to gain an advantage over Trump in national and many battleground polls.
“What Biden’s campaign is doing is pretty unique,” said John Link, vice president of Advertising Analytics, which provided the data for this story.
“They have been able to run a fully funded campaign in a broad array of swing states, while also expanding to national buys allowing them to expand their reach without sacrificing attention to key states and potentially saving money,” Link said.
Of the $421 million Biden has spent and reserved on TV, a higher portion than usual for campaigns — 15 percent — is on nationwide cable and broadcast TV programs seen by the nation’s 208 local markets, whether they’re in a swing state like Arizona, a blue state like Massachusetts or a red state like Idaho.
Biden’s national buys are seen as a key ingredient in making former swing states like Ohio and Iowa look like battlegrounds again. The campaign is advertising heavily on shows such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, which are popular among seniors, and older people especially are watching more TV during the pandemic.
Biden’s ad buys are also “deep,” Link noted, spanning 32 networks that range from Fox to Animal Planet to the DIY network and History Channel.
In contrast, Trump is spending on fewer national networks and forking over a smaller share of his ad money on nationwide buys, 13 percent of his $254 million in ad buys. In raw numbers, Biden is spending $63.3 million to Trump’s $34.4 million on national ads, an almost 2-to-1 advantage. Also, for a time, as many as half of Trump’s ads were concentrated on Fox News, which his base watches religiously.
Normally, presidential campaigns prefer a targeted approach of buying ads in local markets in battleground states, with relatively few national buys. That usually means presidential campaigns, in effect, are running 10 or fewer related statewide races.
But in late spring, Biden’s campaign saw the map starting to expand in his favor, with as many as 17 states in play. Trump’s standing in polls were plummeting over his handling of coronavirus while historic sums of campaign donations began flooding into the Democrat’s coffers.
At the same time, ad rates purchased through stations in battlegrounds with major Senate races — such as Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia – were so high that the Biden campaign calculated it could spend slightly more money on ads purchased through the national networks. Those spots would obviously have the benefit of reaching all the swing states — even the biggest reaches for him, like Texas.
The economies of scale achieved by buying national ads in bulk and reaching a broader audience would ironically save money, the campaign concluded.
“We are looking at a very wide map right now,” Becca Siegel, the Biden campaign’s chief analytics officer. “Normally at this stage of the campaign, we would be narrowing in. But at this stage of the campaign, we have a lot of pathways that have opened up.”
Nationwide buys also pack a stronger punch because the commercials get better play during the same program. For example, a “Wheel of Fortune” ad bought through the national network airs around 7:15 p.m. Eastern, a mid-show placement when people are more likely to be watching. The locally purchased spot is around 7:28 p.m., when viewers are less likely to still be tuned in.
The scale of Biden’s fundraising and ad buying have been jarring for Trump’s campaign, which once likened the president’s now-evaporated advantage to the “Death Star.” Still, Trump’s campaign and backers say they’re not too concerned with the current disparity because he was in this position before, in 2016, when he beat Clinton by leveraging his earned and social media footprints. Unlike 2016, they say, Trump has a better ground game to turn out voters.
“Television ads are a small piece of the voter outreach puzzle, and with our $350 million data operation, the Trump campaign utilizes them in the most strategic, surgical way possible,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager. “It makes no sense to run TV ads in states we know we’re going to win, and in other states, they’re a useful tool to reach the right voters with the right message.”
Trump and his conservative allies are also blowing away Biden and Democrats in digital engagement. The president has vastly larger Facebook and YouTube pages, which reach more people than many news outlets. Trump is narrowly winning the digital advertising war by $174 million to Biden’s $141 million, according to Ad Analytics.
The TV ads from the campaigns aren’t the only ones on air. Factoring in outside groups, Biden and his backers have spent and reserved $723 million on TV, while Trump and his side are spending $453 million since June 1.
But Republicans have watched with concern as the disparity between the two candidates has grown on air. Biden has maintained a larger lead over Trump in polling when compared to Clinton’s advantage during the same period in 2016.
Nick Everhart, a veteran Republican ad consultant, said the combination of Trump’s troubles and Biden’s ad spending and placement are showing up in polls. States such as Texas, Ohio and Iowa look more in play than anyone expected at the start of the campaign cycle.
“A lot of the movement in some of these red-leaning states has been from white people over 55 who are at home during the pandemic and watching a lot of ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ a lot of ‘Jeopardy’ and a lot of local news,” Everhart said. “The way those seniors have broken to Biden, in conjunction with how the president has handled the pandemic, looks like it’s paying off.”
After encountering a cash crunch during the late summer and into the fall, Trump’s campaign has picked up the pace on TV in recent weeks in Arizona and other battlegrounds.
On Friday, for instance, Trump’s campaign bought one $36,000 ad slot on Monday Night Football in Phoenix that will run on the local Fox affiliate that’s simulcasting the ESPN national broadcast. Biden had long ago purchased two of the local ads and a single $327,000 spot on the national broadcast.
Biden has out-advertised Trump on football, attempting to reach younger and middle-aged men who comprise more of the Republican’s base and are often harder to reach via TV because they watch less of it than women.
During football games, Biden has been airing a commercial of an Iraq War vet discussing how the former vice president and senator helped get troops mine-resistant armored vehicles, which plays well nationwide as well as Arizona. Locally, Biden’s campaign has been playing an endorsement of him by Cindy McCain, widow of the late Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Biden also has a broader range of ads compared to Trump, running 63 unique spots to the president’s 25 since Sept. 1, according to Advertising Analytics.
That’s enabled Biden to hone in on special messages to target audiences, whether it’s seniors watching game shows or the predominantly female audience that tuned into the Emmys and saw a spot of a Wisconsin mom criticizing Trump over the pandemic. In the Miami media market, Biden recently began running more Spanish-language ads and he’s outspending Trump in the president’s must-win state of Florida by $89 million to $68 million.
After Trump fell ill Oct. 2 with COVID-19, Biden’s campaign announced he would take down his negative ads while the president was in the hospital. Trump appears well again, but so far the Biden campaign is keeping more of its positive ads up because it found that viewers respond better to positive biographical messages about the former vice president.
Starting Oct. 26, Biden’s campaign plans to start running more 60-second ads during football games and many other shows.
Most ads are usually 30 seconds, but Biden’s campaign has a unique problem: it has too much money.
Biden’s campaign announced Thursday that he had $432 million cash on hand and just 20 days to spend it. That’s prompted social media to light up with references to the ’80s comedy movie “Brewster’s Millions,” in which the protagonist has to spend millions in inheritance money in order to qualify for an even bigger inheritance. He wastes the money by running for political office.
“It’s certainly Brewster’s Millions level spending,” laughed Rich Davis, a veteran Democratic adman who worked for President Barack Obama’s campaigns, “but without the Brewster’s capriciousness.”