President Donald Trump’s campaign is scaling back its television advertising spending and in some cases abandoning it altogether for now in key states, facing a cash crunch brought on by huge investments in staff and operations.
Trump’s re-election campaign vowed last month to saturate voters early with ads in battleground states where voters cast large numbers of ballots before Election Day. But with 50 days until the election, the campaign is canceling ads in states he’ll need to win. In those crucial states, Trump lags Democratic nominee Joe Biden in polling, and Biden has more money to spend.
Between Aug. 10 and Sept. 7, Biden spent $97.7 million on broadcast and cable ads, while Trump spent $21.6 million, according to ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
In some crucial battleground states Biden outspent Trump. In Wisconsin, Biden spent $9.2 million to Trump’s $1.5 million; in Florida, Biden spent $23.2 million to Trump’s $6.4 million; in Arizona, Biden spent $10 million compared to $1.4 million by Trump, and in North Carolina, Biden spent $11.5 million to Trump’s $3.7 million.
Georgia was one state where the Trump campaign outspent Biden -- $2.7 million to $1.3 million.
In that same period, the Trump campaign stopped running ads in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two battleground states where Trump currently trails Biden by about 4 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics. Biden booked $8.5 million in Michigan and nearly $16.8 million in Pennsylvania.
“They are in a cash crunch. It’s obvious by looking at these numbers,” said Republican strategist Bryan Lanza, deputy communications director for Trump’s 2016 campaign. “As with any campaign, you adapt to the environment. They can’t cut from payroll, they can’t cut from operating so they’ve got to cut from TV. That’s not killer, but it’s a problem. You always want to have a strategic advantage when you’re competing against anybody and when you lose it, that’s a problem.”
While Trump’s August fundraising hit a record for his campaign at $210 million, it is far less than the $365.4 million Biden and the Democratic National Committee raised last month. The campaign has not released its cash-on-hand figures.
Trump has discussed putting as much as $100 million into his campaign, as he trails Biden in national polls and a majority of voters seem to have soured on his handling of the coronavirus.
But Trump dominates news cycles and the attention he gets on news programming makes paid advertising less important, Lanza said, noting that Hillary Clinton outspent Trump on TV in 2016.
The Trump campaign says the president has been connecting with voters in battleground states for years, and that the campaign got an unusually early start.
“We’ve been on the ground and on the airwaves to spread the message of his successful first term, while Joe Biden is just now emerging from his basement and forced to play in states Democrats typically don’t need to,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager.
The cash crunch comes as a result of a massive investment in field organization and staff, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s operations, leaving them in a tight spot as the fall campaign began. The campaign also focused on small-dollar donations, which are expensive to find and collect compared to those from high-dollar donors.
The Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee and two fundraising entities that support them both have spent $820 million so far, Federal Election Commission records show. The RNC has invested heavily in staff, including for its ground game, spending $28 million on payroll.
The Trump campaign began its fall ad buying as early as May to lock in air time at the most favorable rates. Under Federal Communication Commission rules, broadcasters must sell air time to federal candidates at the same price it offers its best advertisers beginning 60 days before an election — a window that opened last Tuesday.
But as the fall season approached, the Trump campaign started delaying or canceling ad time it had already bought. In Arizona, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, all key battleground states, the Trump campaign hasn’t aired any local ads since Labor Day. It’s also cut back in Minnesota and Michigan, and instead put money into Florida, North Carolina and even Georgia, a reliably Republican state that wasn’t on its advertising map a month ago.
The new advertising plan is a departure from one campaign manager Bill Stepien outlined last month, when he said the campaign would defend states Trump won in 2016, expand the map into Democratic states, and front-load spending in states with high numbers of early and absentee voters.
“We are guided by data and dates. The data tells us which messages and which advertising puts lead on the target best and we’re guided by that data and importantly we’re guided by the election calendar,” he said.
But the Trump campaign has pushed back its ad spending in Arizona, where 75% of ballots were cast before Election Day in 2016 — the highest of any state without automatic mail-in voting. Trump won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes by 4.1 percentage points in 2016 but now trails Biden by 5.7 points in the RealClearPolitics average of state polls.
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