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How Political Ad Spend During COVID Compares to Past Election Cycles

Afton Brazzoni | Industry Analysis | 15th September 2020
How Political Ad Spend During COVID Compares to Past Election Cycles

 

 

Last fall, presidential hopefuls had already shelled out nearly $70 million in digital advertising for the 2020 election. Projections showed a record year ahead for campaign ad spend, especially on platforms such as Facebook and Google.

Little did we know then that the world would be turned upside down by a public health crisis just a few months into the new year. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 presidential election cycle is moving full steam ahead toward November 3rd. In this article, we’ll dig into how political ad spend during the pandemic compares to past election years. (Hint: candidates are spending even more dough).

Pre-COVID ad spend predictions

Campaign advertising was estimated to hit a record $6 billion in 2020, Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group reported in 2019. That figure alone signaled a 14% increase over the $5.25 billion spent on the 2018 midterm elections.

States including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were expected to see the most advertising, and digital media spend was projected to double from $650 million in 2016. Then, COVID-19 hit, changing the game.

An evolving political landscape

Donald Trump and Joe Biden both pulled back on television advertising when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March of this year, but by May, Trump’s campaign engine had kicked back into gear. Then, in early June, The New York Times reported that Biden spent $1.6 million on Facebook ads in a single day, tripling Trump’s previous daily spend record on the social media platform.

“There has been nothing ‘typical’ about this year’s political ad market,” said Martha Matthews, SVP and Group Director of Local Activation for Dentsu Aegis Network. “There’s no question that the pandemic has disrupted this year’s elections.” 

Between late May and early June, both Trump and Biden spent over $6.5 million on Facebook and Google ads, with Biden’s tab slightly higher. During the Democratic primary earlier in the year, the party had already set a record by spending $1 billion on campaign media, making it their priciest primary election of all time.

The effect of public health measures

Physical distancing measures have done more than make us all a little stir crazy while stuck inside our homes—they’ve impacted the trajectory of presidential campaign spend, making history in the process.

“Physical distancing isn’t allowing for typical in-person campaigning—everything from big campaign events with large numbers of people to door-to-door canvassing. The money that typically used to support this ‘boots on the ground’ campaigning is being shifted to media spending,” Matthews said.

Remember that $6 billion Kantar ad spend projection from fall 2019? It’s now been revised twice—first, to $6.5 billion before the pandemic in February 2020. Later, in July, the organization reported that spend would reach $7 billion on television and digital platforms.

Even a shuttered economy couldn’t stop fundraising efforts for the 2020 presidential campaign. In July alone, Trump raised $127 million and Biden raised $66 million. Then in August, Biden obliterated the previous month’s figure, collecting a total of $364.5 million in campaign donations. This is the best month on record for a presidential general election, ever, according to CNBC. (Trump’s August numbers hadn’t been released yet at the time of writing this article).

The impact on the media industry

Digital advertising in particular offers presidential hopefuls a significant opportunity compared to traditional media: the ability to A/B test campaign messaging and creative to see what resonates most with audiences.

"Testing is incredibly important because in politics we are faced with a unique challenge where the ultimate KPI is a secret ballot every other year. Getting that feedback loop is very difficult, expensive, and labor intensive," said Mark Jablonowski, Managing Partner at DSPolitical. "Digital provides the ability to get much more granular data."

Despite feverish political campaign spending, advertising revenue hasn’t escaped the effects of the pandemic. With the U.S. economy now sliding into a recession, traditional media revenue is expected to drop by nearly 12% in 2020. Regardless, there’s still a silver lining to the situation for publishers.

"Ultimately, politics is a fairly durable industry, and there is always going to be an appetite to make sure a candidate's message can get out and there is always going to be money that helps amplify that message," Jablonowski said.

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