It’s been well known for a while that Hillary Clinton is investing a lot more in paid media than is Donald Trump — a whole lot more. But still, the expenditure numbers for TV ads through September 12 as reported by Politico from data compiled by a media buying group are stunning: $126 million for Clinton, $17 million for Trump.
But hey, maybe outside groups backing Trump are making up for this lopsided margin, right? Wrong. When you count all advertising on behalf of the candidates, you get an even bigger Clinton edge: $244 million to $33 million. That’s more than a seven-to-one advantage, folks. I’m guessing you would probably have to go back to Nixon-McGovern to find a similar domination of the airwaves by one major-party candidate over the other.
Now, it is true that all of the research suggests the value of paid media in presidential general elections is often overrated. TV ads work best for little-known candidates, not for familiar pop-culture figures like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whose “brands,” for better or for worse, have been shaped via billions of dollars of earned media over the years. In the cable/multimedia era, it is obviously a lot harder to target voters via TV ads as well.
But say all you will about the declining efficacy of paid media, especially old-school broadcast TV ads, but there’s still an important qualifier to keep in mind: Campaigns can neutralize each other in paid media only if they invest roughly equivalent resources. Largely unopposed efforts in any significant area of campaigning can have an outsize impact. Money spent on TV ads can seem “wasted” if it only serves to keep a candidate even in an apes-on-the-treadmill arms race. But don’t spend it at all and suddenly you have a big problem.
It’s possible, I suppose, that Team Trump has decided to hold back its ad spending until very late in the contest. There is, after all, some evidence that late TV ads are more effective, mainly because the effect of ads generally tends to “decay” in a short period of time. But if a vast amount of Trump money is in the pipeline, ready to rock and roll in October, it’s not evident in bookings, and indeed, the most peculiar thing about Trump ad spending is the campaign’s tendency to run spots for a week and then suddenly “go dark.” Consistency is not a hallmark of the Trump paid-media strategy, such as it is. According to Advertising Age on September 16: “In terms of booked TV and radio ad time from today through election day, Team Clinton is tracking at roughly 33 times the outlay of Team Trump.” The later the buy, the higher the price. And early voting is already under way; about a third of the electorate will have already voted by the time last-minute ads run.
The other important thing to remember about Trump’s concession of the airwaves to Clinton is that it is not being offset by larger investments in some other area of campaigning. It’s not like the man has a big field operation (other than in the occupied West Bank) or a massive data-analysis effort.
All in all, it’s increasingly clear that Trump is relying to a remarkable, probably unprecedented extent on earned media to deliver his message and mobilize his voters. Keep that in mind when trying to figure out what the wiggy dude will do next in this campaign: He has to make news ten times a day to offset all of his opponent’s advantages. That cuts sharply against any desire he may have to “pivot” to a more “normal” candidacy. “Normal” candidates run ads, open field offices, and spend money on Big Data. That ain’t our Donald.