I’m going to double down here on what I said last week. Ads just aren’t that important for an incumbent president, less so an incumbent who’s as omnipresent in media as Trump is, less so an incumbent about whom public opinion is strongly held and incredibly polarized. There aren’t many people out there whose feelings about him are still so fluid at this late date that a series of 30-second ads is going to matter. The campaign is better off spending their money on organizational efforts.
Considering how close the 2016 election was and how things are shaping up in Florida, that small group of voters who are still making up their minds is a potentially decisive prize. Anything you can throw at them to influence them is worth throwing at them. How did a campaign that’s raised a billion dollars land in a position where they’re having to do triage on ad spending in battlegrounds — in September? Team Trump took in $210 million in August alone. Where did that money go such that they’re already spending strategically with seven weeks left until the big vote?
NEW: The Trump campaign is canceling TV ad schedules that been booked for this week (9/15-9/21) in multiple states including IA, OH and NV
— Medium Buying (@MediumBuying) September 14, 2020
The one that really grabbed me is Nevada. You can understand Trump and Bill Stepien taking a calculated gamble that Iowa and Ohio, both solidly red in 2016, will stay red this year despite Biden’s best efforts. But Nevada is a rare blue state in which Trump is competitive. The NYT poll that came out a few days ago had Biden leading there by just four points. Latinos make up a sizable part of the electorate in NV and they’ve been a surprisingly weak cohort for Biden this year. It was smart of Trump to hold a rally there last night, to signal that he intends to compete for Nevada’s votes, but his advertising strategy cuts against that.
Where’s all the money going? Republicans want to know.
Between Aug. 10 and Sept. 7, Biden spent $97.7 million on broadcast and cable ads, while Trump spent $21.6 million, according to ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
In some crucial battleground states Biden outspent Trump. In Wisconsin, Biden spent $9.2 million to Trump’s $1.5 million; in Florida, Biden spent $23.2 million to Trump’s $6.4 million; in Arizona, Biden spent $10 million compared to $1.4 million by Trump, and in North Carolina, Biden spent $11.5 million to Trump’s $3.7 million…
“They are in a cash crunch. It’s obvious by looking at these numbers,” said Republican strategist Bryan Lanza, deputy communications director for Trump’s 2016 campaign. “As with any campaign, you adapt to the environment. They can’t cut from payroll, they can’t cut from operating so they’ve got to cut from TV. That’s not killer, but it’s a problem. You always want to have a strategic advantage when you’re competing against anybody and when you lose it, that’s a problem.”
According to Bloomberg, as of yesterday the campaign hadn’t run any ads since Labor Day in Arizona, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. They moved money instead to Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia, three red states. Biden’s mega-blockbuster August fundraising haul — $365 million — means Trump has to play defense.
Read this WaPo piece and you’ll find that there are caveats to the ad deficit. A source notes that Team Trump has an enormous field operation and an aggressive ground game involving traditional door-knocking, something the Biden camp has eschewed. That’s a rational use of money given that Trump’s strategy has always been about playing to his base instead of reaching out to swing voters. It’s unlikely that he’s going to win back wary suburbanites now; the path to victory is to find people in groups that are already well-disposed to him and to turn them out en masse. In keeping with that, the campaign has spent big on data. They’re also outpacing Biden in digital advertising, although WaPo notes that that’s often more geared to finding small-dollar donors than turning out voters. And pro-Trump Super PACs spent a bit more than pro-Biden ones over the past month.
Despite all the caveats, though, top Republicans are reportedly worried about the ad imbalance — including Trump himself:
Republican officials have been inundated with calls from worried activists and donors who complain about constant Biden ads in their local media markets, with very few paid Trump responses, according to people familiar with the conversations. Some Republicans close to Trump have been baffled at the decision to sharply curb advertising and have told the president he should change course…
Among those worried is Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who recently told the president she was concerned his ads were not on television in states such as Michigan and Florida where Biden was blanketing the airwaves, according to people familiar with the conversation. The president shared the concern, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations…
Republicans working on Senate and House races, however, have been alarmed, as they have seen Democrats take over the airwaves in parts of the country where lower-ranking candidates are depending on the president to carry them to victory.
We’re not talking about a minor gap here. Biden’s campaign spent *five times* as much on ads as Trump did between August 10 and September 7.
The sense you get from these stories is that Stepien inherited a bloated organization created by Brad Parscale that was too heavily weighted towards field operations and maybe not all that careful about how its money was being spent. Quote: “[O]ther Trump campaign officials said Stepien has been forced to clean up a disorganized accounting plan left behind by Parscale. They said Stepien did not know where all the money was going, and they had to spend weeks putting together a formalized budget.” The campaign also spent a surprisingly large amount of money advertising on Fox News over the summer, more than it spent on local advertising in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin combined. That’s not completely irrational — one consultant noted that independents watch Fox, and Fox ads might be more likely to result in new donations — but, again, it’s of a piece with Team Trump constantly pandering to voters whose support is already assured. The money spent on Fox would be useful in Nevada right now.
All of this is essential background in understanding the dilemma posed by Mike Bloomberg’s promise to spend $100 million in Florida to help Biden. Ideally for him and Sleepy Joe, that spending will help deliver the state to Democrats; if it does, Trump is finished. But even if it doesn’t, that kind of pressure in the most important swing state may force Trump and Stepien to give up on Nevada, Arizona, and so forth in the name of defending Florida. The Bloomberg offensive isn’t about winning Florida so much as it is shrinking Trump’s national map.
I wonder how far away we are from the first reports of POTUS giving up on some states entirely. His team has been bearish on Michigan for months now. If the cash crunch intensifies, the various factors conspiring to make Biden the favorite there this year may lead Trump to stop competing aggressively in Michigan and refocus on holding Florida and Pennsylvania instead.