How the campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden are spending their advertising dollars

This appeared in The Millennial Source

2020 is looking to be one of the most expensive elections in the history of the United States. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton learned in 2016, though, having the deepest pockets doesn’t make up for a campaign’s failure to reach voters in vital states.

After months of relative silence, former New York City mayor and short-lived Democratic presidential nominee Michael Bloomberg has committed to spending US$100 million in Florida to support the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden. In May, the billionaire indicated that he could put in as much as US$250 million in support of Biden, but as of mid-September, he hadn’t spent any money.

The Trump campaign and pundits alike view Florida as a must-win state for the incumbent president. Without the state’s 29 electoral votes, it would be difficult for Trump to piece together enough state victories to get to 270 total votes, especially as he is polling behind Biden in the other important swing states he won in 2016.

The combined campaigns of Trump and Biden will almost certainly spend upward of a billion dollars by Election Day. 2020 is looking to be one of the most expensive elections in the history of the United States. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton learned in 2016, though, having the deepest pockets doesn’t make up for a campaign’s failure to reach voters in vital states.

With the election less than 50 days away, where the candidates spend their money will be just as important as how much they spend.

Where are the Trump and Biden campaigns spending money?

On September 15, NPR reported that both of the presidential campaigns are focusing their ad dollars in the six important “swing” states. Those perennially important states are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Florida, the most valuable of the swing states, has aligned with the winning candidate in every election but one (1992) since 1972.

The two campaigns are spreading US$700 million of TV advertising across 14 total states, with “85% of that money going to the big six.” For the Biden campaign, that makes up 90% of all advertising, while the Trump campaign is spending a more modest — but still substantial — 78% of total advertising dollars in those six states.

The hundred million from Bloomberg is not included in that sum, which means the Biden campaign will have a sizable advertising advantage in that all-important state.

While much of its advertising has gone to traditional television ads, the Trump campaign has been especially focused on digital marketing online, a winning strategy from 2016. Since 2019, Trump’s campaign has spent US$170 million on Facebook and Google ads, as compared to the Biden campaign’s US$90 million.

However, the Biden campaign has been increasing its digital ad buy in recent weeks and is now matching the Trump campaign’s weekly digital advertising in the important swing states.

Trump versus Bloomberg

There is no love lost between Trump and Bloomberg. The two have sparred more than once on Twitter and in the press. Trump frequently refers to Bloomberg as “Mini Mike” (Bloomberg is reportedly 5'8"), while Bloomberg has taken shots at Trump’s persona as a successful real estate mogul.

“We know many of the same people in NY.” Bloomberg tweeted in February 2020. “Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown. They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence.”

So, while Bloomberg’s vow to support Biden’s campaign is strategic politically, the acrimonious relationship between the two billionaires may play a part.

In a two tweet response to the news of Bloomberg’s US$100 million dollar investment, Trump lobbed multiple insults at Bloomberg, including the assertion that he gave “the worst and most inept Debate Performance in the history of Presidential Politics.”

Why are swing states so important?

In addition to Florida’s 29 electoral votes, the other five swing (or “battleground”) states add up to 72 electoral votes. Those total 101 swing votes account for a substantial number of the total 270 electoral votes a candidate needs to win the election.

In 2016, despite almost all polls showing Clinton was favored to win the election, Trump wound up with 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232, largely because he carried all six of the swing states.

A relatively slim margin of victory in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan made all the difference for Trump in 2016. A total of 107,000 votes across all three states gave him the victory. If those three states — all of which went to President Barack Obama in 2012 — had gone to Clinton, Trump would have lost 260 to 278.

Investing in swing states

Like Clinton, the polling for Biden in the swing states has been positive. In an average of polls collected by 270toWin, as of September 15, Biden leads Trump in Arizona (by 4 points), Florida (by 2 points), Michigan (by 8 points), Pennsylvania (by 5 points) and Wisconsin (by 7 points). Trump leads Biden by 1 point in North Carolina.

In spite of these strong numbers, the Biden campaign’s focus on the swing states may be an attempt to learn from the Clinton campaign’s mistakes.

In the weeks following the 2016 election, election commentators and political pundits opined that Clinton’s failure to win the same swing states Obama won just four years earlier reflected a failed campaign strategy. Clinton didn’t campaign enough in those states, went the common wisdom, presumably because she felt they were safely in her pocket.

This was despite the Clinton campaign outspending the Trump campaign in advertising overall. The result: Clinton won the popular vote by millions but lost the electoral college.

While there has been pushback against the narrative — political analysis site FiveThirtyEight argues the loss was a matter of demographics — the Biden campaign doesn’t appear to be risking it.

On Tuesday, September 15, Biden, his wife Jill and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, were all on the campaign trail in person, visiting Florida, Michigan and Nevada. If Biden holds onto all the states Clinton won in 2016 (which includes Nevada, another battleground state), he would win the election with 277 electoral votes.

Some Democrats fear it is not enough, though. In part because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Biden campaign has had a lack of a physical presence in Michigan, giving some Democratic operatives an unsettling feeling of déjà vu.

Originally published at on September 21, 2020.

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