Longtime readers of my work know that I am dubious about the efficacy of TV advertising in presidential elections. Tens of millions have already been spent on both sides, and we have what’s been a stable race for months (anywhere from a seven to 10-point national Biden lead). And remember the primary? Biden was outgunned and broke, didn’t run much of anything on TV, and still romped over the lavishly funded campaigns of opponents like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In races where name identification is near-universal, whose mind exactly is being changed by a 30-second television ad?
Or consider another one of my favorite political facts: The Hillary Clinton campaign and its super PAC allies in 2016 outspent the Trump campaign $768 million to $433 million—a $335 million difference! Most of that money advantage was spent on advertising, and we know how that election turned out …
That said, I could be wrong! Here’s an interesting trend from Civiqs’ daily tracking poll of Biden’s approval ratings:
You can see that Biden began his battleground ad blitz on June 19, and since then, his approval ratings have gone from 40-53 to a less terrible 43-50 today—a six-point swing. While his numbers among Democrats have improved in that time frame as the party united around him, there was significant movement among independents—from a woeful 31-60 to a less terrible 36-54 today—an 11-point shift.
Did Biden’s advertising help improve those numbers? Couldn’t have hurt. And here’s where the political reality comes in: If you have all the money in the world—and these two campaigns have it—they’re going to spend it on TV. It’s the old “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” adage. We can argue using imperfect data and anecdotes about the efficacy of traditional advertising, but no one is about to lose a campaign by going out on a limb and testing any theories.
At last official count at the end of July, Trump’s campaign and its allies had raised $505 million to the Biden camp’s $470 million or so—a dramatic closing of what was once a massive gap. The cash-on-hand figures are even better for Democrats, with Trump’s once-massive advantage whittled down to a paltry $13 million at the end of July—$146 million to $133 million. Odds are good that as of today, Biden has more cash.
August has been a monster month for Biden. The Biden campaign raised $70 million just last week during the convention. It raised another $26 million the day following his Kamala Harris announcement. Don’t be surprised if his monthly total approaches $200 million. That means that he isn’t just flush with cash, but has enough to expand his campaign—his monster $220 million ad buy earlier this month included the new battleground reach states of Iowa, Ohio, and Texas. Texas in particular is a pleasant surprise given how expensive it is.
Yet as Biden expands his map, Trump actually went dark in Michigan in late July. And while it was billed as “temporary,” the campaign hasn’t been back on the air since. It does have ad reservations restarting in September, but the six-week absence is puzzling, to say the least.
And now, claiming the Republican National Convention is giving them the media coverage they need, they’re dark everywhere. That’s not a sign of a campaign with lots of money on hand, it’s a sign of a campaign finding excuses to save cash for a final push starting in September. It might even be as simple as trying to win the messaging war when August fundraising numbers are announced.
One could easily imagine Trump’s campaign wishing to avoid headlines about trailing the money race after bragging about its fundraising prowess over the last several years. Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien idiotically declared on his first day that “[w]ith 109 days left, our goal is clear – to win each day we have left until election day. If we win more days than Joe Biden wins, President Trump will be re-elected.” While that’s not how campaigns are won, one could see how that mentality would lead them to conserve cash in order to “win” the fundraising announcement day.
A smart, well-funded campaign would use paid media to reinforce the convention messaging, pushing it to audiences that aren’t watching it live (which is, to be clear, most people). The Trump campaign is not smart, and by the looks of it, can’t possibly be well-funded anymore.
And given how obsessed Trump is with television, and how television is still watched by his strongest demographic (older voters), the strategy is extra curious.
As I’ve noted several times, Trump’s campaign has been grossly mismanaged financially, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given it is headed by a guy who bankrupted a casino. The level of grift, waste, nepotism, and corruption is off the charts. And now, the bill appears due.