Political messages from Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton seem to be everywhere. So it may surprise you to know that overall spending on advertising in this presidential election actually is lower than in prior election cycles, excluding spending by outside groups. Moreover, Clinton is spending less on ads than Barack Obama did in the 2012 campaign, and she has the backing of large donors while Obama successful tapped small donations for his re-election efforts. Meanwhile, Trump relies more on press coverage — good or bad — and social media than prior candidates. And his ad spending strategy can be baffling to some, favoring New Hampshire over Pennsylvania.
Explaining campaign advertising trends are Bowdoin College professor Michael Franz of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks ads in federal elections, and Michael S. Rocca, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. They were recently interviewed on the Knowledge at Wharton show that airs on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: The ad spending numbers [by the presidential candidates] are lower than in earlier election cycles. Why is that so?
Michael Franz: One reason is that the candidates themselves are probably two of the most well-known, general election candidates in a long time, despite neither of them being an incumbent. Therefore, it takes less to impress people with information about them, or the candidates realize that it’s unlikely that they’re able to move much of the numbers given how well known they are.
Another reason is that because the Trump campaign has chosen to not advertise and spend its money in other ways, especially leveraging a lot of the free media coverage, the Clinton people have come to realize they don’t need to spend as much to dominate the airwaves. Both of those [factors] help us understand why the add totals are lower.
Knowledge at Wharton: Obviously, Donald Trump with his persona gets an unbelievable amount of TV coverage, partly because he’s not the traditional political candidate. Maybe this has come back to bite him a little bit, and he and his campaign are of the mindset that any press is good press. That is a long-held theory in the industry, but it is not always one that works and maybe not so this year in the political realm.
“Because the Trump campaign has chosen to not advertise [so much] … the Clinton people have come to realize they don’t need to spend as much.” –Michael Rocca
Franz: That’s right. One reason why campaign ads are so attractive to candidates is that it allows them to control the narrative a little bit. They can set the agenda [and] what issues they want to focus on. They can set the spin and the frame on those issues. So it’s very attractive for campaigns.
You see some of that in the Trump side with his aggressive use of Twitter in an attempt to set the narrative or set the discussion in a particular way. But when you rely a lot on media coverage of your campaign as a way to spread your message and spread your perspectives on issues, then you also are subject to the whims and the interpretations of the media’s discussion of that. So live by the media, die by the media, I suppose.
Knowledge at Wharton: There are many, many millions of Americans that feel disenfranchised with government and the way that Washington. D.C. has worked. It made me wonder whether or not in this particular campaign — because the disapproval ratings are so high — there would be a potential negative impact by spending more money on this instead of really focusing on meeting with the people and pressing the flesh.
Michael Rocca: One of the things that President Obama and to a certain extent [former Republican presidential nominee] Mitt Romney did really well in 2012 is reach out to some smaller donors — particularly President Obama. He just did an incredible job at mobilizing small contributions. In order to do that you need to be able to reach individuals who, to a certain extent, don’t feel disenfranchised, right? You need to be able to pull them into the political system. They need to, in some ways, show this level of efficacy and some sentiment of, “Yes, I can get involved in this campaign. I feel good about this campaign.” We’re not really getting that in 2016.
In fact, if you look at the numbers, particularly on Hillary Clinton’s side, a vast majority, or 55% to 60% of her contributions are coming from large donors. They’re not coming from small donors. That’s a reflection of exactly what you’re talking about. Is that a general sentiment out there right now? You can see it in the approval numbers of Congress. You can see it in the levels of trust and confidence in the system is that we’re at pretty much all-time lows here. That’s reflected in the types of individuals that are donating. It’s reflected in the types of individuals that are choosing to not donate, to not reach into their pockets and give to the candidates.
Franz: That’s right. It’s a good example of the political environment that we’re in. It has meant that candidates are a little bit more beholden to those larger donors and there’s less enthusiasm for both campaigns.
Knowledge at Wharton: A lot has been made about the “battleground states” — places like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio. What’s interesting is the expenditures of the candidates. New Hampshire has four electoral votes, which are important, but you wouldn’t think of it as important as obviously a Texas or a New York. [According to Bloomberg Politics], Donald Trump spent more than double — $191,000 for the week of October 11th in that state compared to Hillary Clinton’s $82,000. It makes me wonder whether or not some mistakes are being made in where that money is being spent.
Franz: This will be part of the postmortem after the election is over — where did the candidates do well and where did they lose on the margins and then how much did the campaigns spend at the end in those places.
I’ve always thought that the difference between being a genius and an idiot is whether you win or lose. So if [Clinton] wins big or wins Colorado and doesn’t spend any money there, she’s a genius. But if she loses on the knife’s edge because she didn’t spend any money there in the last week, then she’s an idiot.
“Trump likes to allude to this idea that spending money on ads in general are silly wastes of money.” –Michael Franz
[Many aspects] will have to be analyzed when the campaign is over. They’re making strategic calculations. They’re not operating in a vacuum. They’re deciding based on the poll numbers they have and they can see the best impact they can get from the money they are going to spend.
For that matter, can we draw a candidate away from the states that we think they need to be in by spending in other states? Could Clinton spend [more] in Georgia or in Texas where some of the polls show things to be tighter, forcing Trump to devote resources to those places? So there’s a lot of strategy happening behind the scenes, but we don’t necessarily know if it’s good or if it’s bad until the campaign is finally done.
Knowledge at Wharton: The spend doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to the size of the state or its number of electoral votes. It really does come down to a strategy of where you have the best opportunity to gain ground.
Rocca: That’s absolutely true. I’m living in a state where that’s a great example. The State of New Mexico has only five electoral college votes. But for a long time it was getable for both parties. Right now, it’s leaning a little bit blue. Colorado above us is swinging a little bit blue. We’re not a large state but we’re a state that could tip the balance.
There are particular states that Trump has to win in order to get to the magic number and there are certain states where it would be nice if he could win. Last week [in New Mexico], we had Bernie Sanders on [the University of New Mexico] campus and then [Republican vice presidential candidate Michael] Pence came as well. There is a sense here that in New Mexico, the five [electoral college votes] could be up for grabs. Polling seems to suggest that it’s going to be blue, but it’s one of those states with just five electoral college votes that could mean something at the very end.
So you don’t want to waste your money in states that you don’t have a chance at, of course. But you definitely want to protect your backyard. And you want to go after the states, no matter how many electoral college votes are in that state, that might be getable.
Knowledge at Wharton: Another state up in New England where the ad spend pattern is interesting is New Hampshire. And that is not a state where they split the vote. Yet Donald Trump is spending almost $200,000 there this coming week, compared to [much less in] Pennsylvania, which has 20 electoral votes. … I really am stunned Donald Trump is spending $200,000 this week in the state of New Hampshire and only about $60,000 in Pennsylvania where it’s about a five-point race if you go on the various polls.
Franz: Yes. I think that does make a lot of sense. It’s really hard to know what’s underlying their strategy more generally, not necessarily knowing why they haven’t spent more money on political ads overall.
Trump likes to allude to this idea that spending money on ads in general are silly wastes of money or something. But they are important to setting the narrative and they would allow him, if he had run a predominantly positive ad campaign, to pair up with his more vitriolic tweets and media appearances. He could have triangulated pretty well in pulling in some moderate or disaffected Democrats who really don’t like Hillary. He hasn’t done that.
“It almost seems as if [the Trump campaign is] making it up as they go along.” –Michael Franz
So it’s hard to ascribe to his campaign a logical, strategic sense of things. It almost seems as if they’re making it up as they go along. And they’re disdainful of traditional campaign strategies.
Knowledge at Wharton: But is it surprising to you? I would think it has to be, now that we are so far into this presidential campaign. According to the numbers from Bloomberg, Donald Trump has spent $44 million on TV ads and Hillary Clinton has spent $157 million. I would think that this has to be the widest disparity between one party and the other in terms of ad spending we may have ever seen.
Franz: It absolutely is. It boggles the mind from a political scientist’s perspective. In 2012, we were talking about this somewhat similarly. Obama was pummeling Romney for a while in the general election in terms of ad buys, but that gap was not nearly as wide as the gap we’re seeing now. We were puzzling over it back in 2012. Why isn’t Romney matching Obama ad for ad? Why is he letting Obama set the narrative throughout the summer of 2012? This was the real puzzler back then.
Now, this is even just more baffling. We’ll wait and see how it takes shape in future elections. Some would like to suggest that with the TV ad spending in general, we might have tipped off the cliffs as the toolbox becomes deeper for campaigns and the outreach is happening online and digitally and other ways. But in terms of having a billionaire run for president of the United States and not be able to match or not want to match his opponent ad for ad just seems to boggle the mind.