• Fri. Mar 5th, 2021

State of the Race, as Told by Ads

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Jul 28, 2020

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Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

With less than 100 days until Election Day, attention is increasingly shifting toward the battleground states.

But as the campaigns posture to show strength by claiming a competitive edge in a seemingly long-shot state (President Trump in Minnesota? Joe Biden in Texas?), one way to cut through the noise and determine how a campaign truly sees its path to victory is to look at television ad buys.

It’s a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is window into the state of the race.

For Mr. Trump, it appears no state is more important than Florida. His campaign has spent $17.2 million there since the general election began in earnest in April, and has more than $36 million reserved for the state through the election, more than double its current investment in any other battleground state, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. Though it is an expensive state for running ads, the delta in spending for Mr. Trump between other states and Florida is vast.

Florida, of course, is also personal for Mr. Trump, who declared himself a resident of the Sunshine State last year.

And yet, Mr. Trump trails Mr. Biden in nearly every statewide poll in Florida at the moment, having fallen behind Mr. Biden in the state since March. His deficit there appears to be growing. A recent poll from Quinnipiac University found that Mr. Biden, the former vice president, had a 13-point lead over Mr. Trump.

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Updated 2020-07-28T22:52:31.494Z

Mr. Biden has also poured the most money into Florida so far, with roughly $8 million already spent on the airways and $4 million more reserved through the election. The state has also played prominently in his recent summer advertising blitz, where he doled out $20 million over two weeks. More than $5 million of that $20 million spree went to Florida.

Another top battleground state this year, according to advertising buys, is Arizona. The Republican-leaning state, which has voted for a Democratic candidate for president only once since 1952, is now a tossup. The Trump campaign has spent about $5 million in the state so far, with $7 million more scheduled through November. Mr. Biden has spent about $3 million, and is buoyed by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, which has matched Mr. Trump’s future buys so far through November in the state. Current polling shows Mr. Biden with a lead in Arizona outside of the margin of error.

Elsewhere, the Trump campaign has surpassed $20 million in total spending in three states: Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. While Mr. Trump has invested relatively little in Ohio so far, at $3.2 million, he has $18 million reserved through November, the second highest current advance total for his campaign. It’s a state his campaign expects to carry, though recent polling shows Mr. Trump up by just a percentage point.

Another swing state where Mr. Trump has spent relatively little is Michigan. The campaign has invested $3.5 million there so far and has $11 million booked through November. But a new poll from CNN found Mr. Biden with a 12-point lead in the state, and his campaign is currently outpacing Mr. Trump on air by nearly $1 million per week.

The inverse is playing out in Iowa, a former swing state turning increasingly red. There, the Trump campaign has spent about $1.8 million and reserved another $5.6 million. But the Biden campaign and Democratic allies have no presence there or future ad buys.

In Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump finds himself in a similar position as in Florida, having already spent $10 million in the state he narrowly won in 2016, and with $17 million currently reserved. And yet, Mr. Trump has consistently trailed Mr. Biden in the former vice president’s home state. The Biden campaign, headquartered in Philadelphia, has spent $6.2 million in the Keystone State, more than double what it has invested in every battleground state except Florida.

Now, about those long shots. The Trump campaign appears to have a serious interest in Minnesota, a state Mr. Trump lost in 2016 by just under 45,000 votes. Though his campaign has spent only $1.2 million so far in the state, it has set aside more than $14 million through November. Current polling has Mr. Trump down by double digits in Minnesota, a state where a Republican hasn’t won a presidential election since 1972. And perhaps as a sign of confidence, neither Mr. Biden nor Priorities USA has booked any ads in Minnesota through November.

As a show of force in Texas, the Biden campaign has spent just $65,000 there, though it cut an ad specifically tailored for the state that includes Mr. Biden directly appealing to Texans. But according to his campaign, it has reserved only a “six-figure buy” at the moment. And similar to Mr. Biden in Minnesota, the Trump campaign has no ads in Texas.

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It’s become a familiar — and effective — ad motif in the presidential election for Democrats: Over a cascade of sound bites of President Trump downplaying the coronavirus crisis, a graph showing the number of deaths from the virus curves up exponentially.

A new ad from Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challenger in the Georgia senate race, uses the same style, while splicing in similar comments from his opponent, Senator David Perdue.

The message: It’s a hauntingly familiar one. “The risk to the American people remains very low,” Mr. Trump is heard saying, as an on-screen graph notes 15 coronavirus deaths. That is followed by a clip of Mr. Perdue, saying “the risk of this virus still remains low,” as the death tracker hits 24. Both are heard comparing the coronavirus to the flu, and then downplaying the number of deaths by saying the projections initially had the count higher, while the graph ticks above 100,000 deaths in the United States.

For the final five seconds, the ad switches to a more traditional negative attack. A narrator declares over a series of black-and-white photographs a familiar set of criticisms directed not this time at Mr. Trump but at Mr. Purdue: “ignored the medical experts,” “downplayed the crisis” and “left us unprepared.”

The takeaway: The seemingly unending pandemic, and the accompanying economic fallout, has severely hampered Mr. Trump’s re-election effort, as he trails Mr. Biden in numerous national and battleground state polls.

It’s clearly the most important topic on the nation’s mind, and it is likely that many more ads like Mr. Ossoff’s will begin to run in states like North Carolina, Arizona, Montana and Maine where Democrats are growing increasingly hopeful at turning the Senate blue.


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