Trump is losing the TV ad war with Biden, bigly
As guests enter President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, they are greeted by a framed printout of a TV Guide proudly proclaiming The Apprentice #1 in the TV ratings. During the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump touted the success of his NBC reality show as a reason for electing him, calling it a “ratings machine.” But, as with most things once flaunted by Trump, the truth about The Apprentice ratings painted a far different picture of success. In the final year with Trump as host in 2015, his infamous boardroom drama was watched by an average of 7.6 million viewers, not an insignificant number of individuals, but the show ranked 67th among broadcast series.
Long before Trump walked through those boardroom doors in 2004, he was both a fixture on American television screens and fixated by TV.
During the past four years, he has spent the majority of his presidency both participating in, reacting to, and consuming TV coverage about his administration.
Given the president’s direct experience with television, it is highly ironic that in these closing two weeks of the campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden is absolutely dominating Trump on the airwaves. As The New York Times reports, “Mr. Biden has maintained a nearly 2-to-1 advantage on the airwaves for months. His dominance is most pronounced in three critical swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where he spent about $53 million to Mr. Trump’s $17 million over the past month.” Those three states, formerly key components of the ‘Blue Wall’ that crumbled in 2016, could make Trump a one-term president if they flip back to the Democratic column.
In the ten leading battleground states during the closing weeks of this campaign, the Biden campaign is outspending the president’s team in all but one state: Georgia. Record fundraising by the former vice president over the last two months, a combined $747.5 million, is fueling this final, overwhelming dominance on the airwaves. With that lopsided resource imbalance, the former vice president’s team can be on the offensive in once-deeply red states like Arizona, Ohio and Iowa.
Where the president is playing electoral defense on the airwaves, his team is deploying what is likely to be a flawed strategy. As the Times further examines, “roughly 80 percent of the Trump campaign’s ads have been either negative or what’s called a contrast ad, a mix of criticism of the opponent and self-promotion. Of those, 62 percent were all-out attacks. For Mr. Biden, about 60 percent of campaign ads have been negative or contrast, with just 7 percent outright negative.”
Trump’s advertising strategy mirrors his in-person event strategy, with the majority of both air time and speech time devoted to personal grievances and attacking the former vice president. While this effort may be successful in motivating his base of supporters, the ads are having little persuasive effect at tarnishing Biden or moving independents and ticket-splitters to the president’s fold. Despite all of this negative spending by the Trump campaign, Biden still maintains a net-positive 7.4-point favorable rating among voters (51.4 percent favorable/44 percent unfavorable) in the latest Real Clear Politics average. In the same average of polls, Trump has a net-negative 11.3-unfavorable rating (43.1 favorable/54.4 unfavorable).
The only way President Trump is going to be successful on Nov. 3 is by holding onto key constituencies that he carried in 2016, including seniors, white female voters and voters that reside in suburbs. Right now, Biden leads each of these groups nationally and in many of the key battleground states that will decide the election. Many voters in these key groups have been uniquely affected by COVID-19, especially seniors in the most vulnerable age bracket and Trump’s famous “suburban housewife” who is juggling work and children studying at home.
The vast majority of Team Biden’s ads have focused on the Coronavirus, Social Security and Medicare — an approach largely centered on healthcare in general, with both positive and contrastive messaging that is clearly resonating with those core voting blocs. Trump on the other hand is focusing his mostly negative messaging on China, immigration and the economy.
Trump’s media strategy is mostly a repeat of his 2016 insurgent bid against Hillary Clinton, where he spent the majority of his advertising resources driving up Clinton’s negatives.
The Trump campaign has failed to realize that the president is no longer the insurgent, but rather the current occupant of the Oval Office who must answer for his record during these past four years in office.
By spending so much of their limited resources on negative ads, the Trump Campaign is committing what is likely to be a fatal mistake in not giving persuadable Americans a reason to support the incumbent president for four more years.
Kevin Walling (@kevinpwalling) is a Democratic strategist, Vice President at HGCreative, co-founder of Celtic Strategies, and a regular guest on Fox News, Fox Business and Bloomberg TV and Radio.
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