Biden Is Dominating Trump on the Airwaves in Battlegrounds

Biden Is Dominating Trump on the Airwaves in Battlegrounds

President Donald Trump is being vastly outspent by Joe Biden in television advertising in the general election battleground states and elsewhere, with the former vice president focusing overwhelmingly on the coronavirus as millions of Americans across the country begin casting early votes.
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 Trump’s $17 million over the past month, with ads assailing the president’s handling of the economy and taxes as well as the virus, according to data from Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.
In Pennsylvania alone, Biden ran 38 different ads during a single week this month, a sign of how comprehensive his effort there has been.
The president’s ad strategy, in turn, reflects the challenges facing both his campaign finances and Electoral College map. He has recently scaled back advertising in battleground states like Ohio and Iowa and, until this past week, slashed ads in Michigan and Wisconsin, despite being behind in polls. And Trump is having to divert resources to hold onto Republican-leaning states like Arizona and Georgia.
Trump spent less on ads in 2016, too, and still went on to capture critical states and prevail over Hillary Clinton. But back then he relied heavily on huge rallies and live cable news coverage to get his message out, and he got extensive airtime for his attacks on Clinton. This time around, his rallies have been fewer and smaller because of the pandemic and his own virus infection; the events have gotten less cable coverage; and he has had a hard time making attacks stick on Biden.
In many ways, the advertising picture reveals how the pandemic has upended the 2020 race. With in-person campaigning sharply limited, the traditional advantages built by a ground game in battleground states have largely been replaced by the air cover provided by advertising. More than $1.5 billion has been spent on the presidential race alone; by contrast, $496 million was spent on ads in just the presidential race by this point in the 2016 race.
Onscreen, voters are inundated with imagery of the pandemic — hazmat suits and shuttered businesses — as well as scenes from protests, both peaceful and violent.
Roughly 80% of the Trump campaign’s ads have been either negative or what is called a contrast ad, a mix of criticism of the opponent and self-promotion. Of those, 62% were all-out attacks. For Biden, about 60% of campaign ads have been negative or contrast, with just 7% outright negative.
This inundation can be dizzying to viewers in swing states. In Phoenix, during the Spanish language broadcast of “Exatlón,” a popular reality TV show, a Biden ad that hails Sen. Kamala Harris’ record with the Latino community and that shows her peacefully marching in the streets is followed by a Trump ad denouncing Biden as “radical,” with scenes of violent clashes from protests. “Exatlón” runs an average of 15 ads from the Trump or Biden campaigns per broadcast.
In Philadelphia, fans of “Judge Judy” had to sit through an average of five political ads per half-hour of broadcast, with the Biden and Trump campaigns offering dueling arguments on criminal justice reform.
The increasingly lopsided nature of the TV ad wars is part of an overall narrative that shows a persistent, if slight, advantage for the former vice president. Biden has built steady, single-digit leads in battleground polls with a campaign message of resolve and a pledge to control the pandemic — points reflected in his ads. Trump, who has repeatedly shifted his messaging, has played more defense on the airwaves.
The result is a reversal of fortunes in a campaign where it seemed Trump had built an unstoppable cash machine early on and, in the words of his former campaign manager, had a “death star” of political advertising ready for the final push. Having been outspent by roughly $124 million on the airwaves since May, Trump has largely ceded the ad wars to Biden.
“The candidates almost always try to match what their opponent is doing because it’s like an arms race,” said Lynn Vavreck, a politics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They understand that allowing them to get ahead has consequences.”

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