Trump’s bizarre ad strategy – Politico
It’s seven weeks before Election Day, five days before the highly anticipated first debate, and Donald Trump’s television advertisements have all but vanished.
Trump’s ads last ran nearly a week ago in four battleground states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Since then, the GOP presidential nominee has ceded the airwaves to Hillary Clinton — and is only poised to launch a limited, less-targeted ad campaign in the days before next week’s debate.
Story Continued Below
While his campaign announced a new ad on Tuesday, it’s only going to run on national cable news stations and during two Sunday morning public-affairs shows, according to data from The Tracking Firm, a company that monitors media buys. And even with that seemingly modest buy — the full extent of which wasn’t clear on Wednesday night — Clinton is still outspending him this week many times over.
“It’s unprecedented for a major-party nominee in this century to have such an on-again, off-again TV buy,” said Elizabeth Wilner, a former TV-network political director who, until last month, monitored political advertising for Kantar Media/CMAG.
The strategy has perplexed political media buyers who aren’t affiliated with the campaign. Trump’s campaign is underfunded compared to Hillary Clinton’s — his campaign had only $50 million on hand as of Aug. 30, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission Tuesday night — but Trump’s failure to advertise consistently threatens the efficacy of his entire paid media campaign, limited as it is.
The political media buyers, including Republicans who declined to be named in criticizing the nominee, warned that the effects of television ads are fleeting, and any benefit Trump might get from putting his paid advertisements in front of voters can be undone with time if those messages aren’t reinforced.
The GOP nominee’s absence is also compounding Clinton’s domination of the airwaves. Last week, Smart Media Group, a media buying firm that works with the Republican National Committee, wrote in a memo to the Trump campaign that through Sept. 12, Trump had spent just $17 million on TV ads, compared to $126 million for Clinton. If outside group spending is counted, the disparity is even more stunning: $244 million for Clinton versus $33 million for Trump.
The highly unusual decision to go mostly dark in advance of the debate is emblematic of Trump’s approach to television advertising in the general election, a patchwork effort that has engaged in swing states only in fits and starts. Of the 20 days thus far in September, Trump has advertised in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania for 11 days, and for 12 in Ohio. He’s also run one-week flights in a number of other states beginning over Labor Day weekend, only to let those expire more than a week ago and decline to rebook.
A Trump campaign spokesman declined to reply to inquiries on Tuesday and Wednesday about the campaign’s strategy.
Clinton, meanwhile, is continuing to blanket eight states in ads.
Confusion about Trump’s strategy runs beyond the scale of his advertising — it’s the unpredictable nature of where and when he is advertising. When Trump first launched his TV ads in mid-August, they were focused on four core states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Together, those states will award 82 electoral votes — and Trump will win the election if he carries those four and holds all the other states Mitt Romney won in 2012.
Trump went on the air in those states on August 19, and he kept advertising in them through September 6 or 7, depending on the state.
While those ads were on the air, Trump expanded to six new states: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia. Ads began in those states in early September and ran for roughly one week – including an eye-popping, $2.2-million buy in Virginia, where the Clinton campaign stopped advertising last month after pulling comfortably ahead in the polls.
But the Trump ads ended between September 7 and September 10, depending on the state. Trump has been off the air in those places ever since.
Meanwhile, he reengaged in his four core states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — on September 12. (Both campaigns abstained from airing ads on the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.) After nearly a week off the air in those four states most central to his candidacy, Trump last Monday rolled out a combined $2.5-million ad buy over five days. But those reservations ended last Friday.
In their place, Trump’s campaign is planning a limited ad campaign, buying time on four cable stations: Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNBC. He’s also planning to run national ads during at least two of the national Sunday morning public affairs programs on broadcast TV: “Fox News Sunday” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
For political purposes, it’s a relatively inefficient buy. The 11 states that make up POLITICO’s Battleground States project hold roughly 29 percent of the population. That means, roughly speaking, that seven-in-10 Americans reached by a national ad buy live outside the battleground states.
The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, continues to advertise heavily in eight targeted states: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania, while also, at times, running national advertisements. (The campaign’s investments in Arizona, which has voted Republican in 15 of the last 16 presidential elections, are much smaller than in the other states.)
Just this week — from Tuesday through next Monday, the day of the first debate — Clinton is poised to spend nearly $6.8 million on TV ads, backed up by another $5.6 million from pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action in those states, minus Arizona.
Trump’s air cover from outside groups is also far more limited than Clinton’s. Rebuilding America Now, a pro-Trump super PAC, is spending $635,000 in Pennsylvania this week. And an anti-Clinton super PAC based in Wisconsin, Reform America Fund, is spending $332,000 in that state, where neither campaign has advertised thus far.
There are some signs Trump’s campaign may be focusing on its seemingly haphazard ad efforts. GOP ad-maker Rex Elsass met with Trump campaign officials last week, POLITICO reported on Tuesday. The campaign has already reserved about $2.8 million in satellite TV ads slated to air beginning on Tuesday, Sept. 27, through the day before Election Day in eight states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
For Trump, there’s risk in continuing to delay: Booking ads at the last minute, as Trump’s campaign has been doing, sometimes means spending more money for the same spot as a campaign that makes its reservations earlier. And there are some signs that some of the late decision-making is driven by the candidate: The New York Times reported earlier this month that Trump himself has been selecting the media markets in which the campaign has been advertising.
Since research suggests the effects of television ads are short-lived — and with the race tightening in the battleground states in recent weeks, Trump can ill-afford to regress.
“It has to be consistent,” said one GOP ad-buyer, “because the recall on these just evaporates when you go dark.”
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.