Presidential ad wars bring 2020 battleground into focus

Presidential ad wars bring 2020 battleground into focus
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President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE and their allies have reserved more than a quarter billion dollars in television advertising time in the weeks leading up to November’s general election, bringing into focus what is likely to be the broadest set of swing states in recent history.

The two sides have blocked off airtime in a dozen states, including both traditional battlegrounds and states that were once considered safely Democratic or safely Republican.

Trump’s campaign, flush with cash, has leapt to an early lead in television spending. The Trump campaign has reserved more than $150 million in advertising time in 12 states, including $40 million in Florida alone, the president’s adopted home state.


“President Trump’s unprecedented fundraising has equipped his campaign with the resources to do what we always planned — defend the states he won in 2016 and add some where he was close last time,” said Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s campaign spokesman. “We know that a lot of Americans know Joe Biden’s name, but they don’t know much about him. We’re changing that and Americans will know that he’s an empty vessel being filled with the radical agenda of the extreme left.”

Trump’s campaign has already reserved $16 million in Pennsylvania, $13 million in Michigan and $7.8 million in Wisconsin, the three Rust Belt states that propelled him over the electoral college finish line in 2016. 

There are signs that Trump hopes to expand on his victory four years ago: The campaign has blocked off $7 million in airtime in New Hampshire, where Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE won by just 2,700 votes, and the overlapping Boston media market. And the Trump team has reserved $14 million in airtime in Minnesota, a state he lost by just 45,000 votes and one that has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972. The Trump campaign has reserved $6.2 million in airtime in Nevada, public records show.

But Trump will also spend millions defending states he won easily in 2016.

The campaign has reserved $18 million in airtime in Ohio, where Trump beat Clinton by 8 percentage points; and $5.8 million in Iowa, where he won by almost 10 points.


The Trump team will also spend at least $16.9 million in North Carolina and $7 million in Arizona, two states he won by just 3 points in 2016.

“It does seem like there will be a healthy number of contested states this time around, and there seems to be plenty of money out there to run these ads as well,” said Travis Ridout, a political scientist at Washington State University and a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ad spending.

Biden’s campaign has been slower to reserve airtime, though it said Tuesday it would spend $15 million on television advertisements in the next week. Biden will buy airtime in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and he will air advertisements during the opening games of Major League Baseball’s abbreviated season later this week.

Before those advertisements are placed, Biden’s team had reserved only $2.4 million in airtime, spread between those six states between now and Election Day.

“We have outraised the Trump campaign for two straight months, are closing the cash gap, and will run a robust paid media program between now and Election Day that makes the positive case for Joe Biden’s trusted and tested leadership during a time of profound crisis,” said Matt Hill, a Biden campaign spokesman. “We will be up on the air and online making sure that voters know there is only one candidate who is going to get the virus under control, save the economy, and restore the soul of America: Joe Biden.”

The bulk of the spending on the Democratic side comes from Priorities USA, a super PAC that has already reserved almost $50 million in airtime from now until Election Day. The group has reserved tens of millions in airtime in 17 media markets across the same six states where Biden is focused, according to advertising data analyzed by The Hill.

Priorities USA has already purchased more than $5 million in airtime in Detroit and in Tampa and Orlando, Fla. They will spend nearly $5 million in Phoenix.

“Our spending is geared towards getting to 270 [electoral votes], so that doesn’t mean that we don’t think other states are in play beyond where we’re spending,” said Josh Schwerin, the group’s senior adviser. “If we focus on fewer states, we can make a bigger impact in those states. I should say that plans can always change.”

On the Republican side, America First Action, Trump’s main super PAC, has reserved $29 million in airtime. The lion’s share of that spending will take place in the Tampa and Orlando markets, which together account for $16.1 million in reservations. America First Action has also blocked off nearly $9 million between the Charlotte and Raleigh markets in North Carolina.

Altogether, Democratic outside groups have blocked off $80 million in airtime dedicated to the presidential contest so far, while Republican spending is almost entirely coming from America First Action. 

The initial spending is certain to explode, both as the campaigns and outside groups collect more money and as the battleground shifts. Polls suggest states like Georgia and Texas may be in play, though no Democratic groups have purchased airtime there. And Democrats may feel pressure to defend states like Minnesota and Nevada, if Trump’s ads move the needle.

Though campaigns are spending more than ever on digital advertising on platforms like Facebook and Google, television — especially local broadcast news and sports — is still king.

“Advertising spending in some ways responds to how much the campaigns are able to raise, and Donald Trump is a very effective fundraiser for himself and also for Democrats. They’re bringing in the cash,” Ridout said. 

In the midst of a pandemic, he added, television is likely to play an even more outsize role: “It’s hard to spend that money on political rallies and door-knocking this time around, so what’s left?”