“So far, this election has been the complete opposite of what we anticipated,” said JC Medici, national director of politics and advocacy for Rocket Fuel.
In 2012, President Obama won razor-slim majorities in Ohio (50.67%), Pennsylvania (51.97%), Virginia (51.16%) and Florida (50.01%). The loss of Florida and any two of those other three states would have been enough to secure the Electoral College for Mitt Romney, and so those states have absorbed feverish attention and ad budgets from candidates, party committees and super PACs in recent cycles.
This year, however, state dynamics have shifted wildly, in part due to a less competitive presidential contest.
“This year’s such an anomaly because Trump is putting states in play (for Democrats) that traditionally wouldn’t be in play,” said Trace Anderson, CEO at the conservative data management firm CFB Strategies. Arizona went for Romney by a nine-point margin, but is now considered a toss-up or even slightly leaning toward Hillary Clinton.
Romney-held states like Georgia, Missouri and North Carolina have also seen significant upticks in Democrat spending, according to industry sources.
“The road to 270 [the number of Electoral College votes necessary to secure the election] looks very different this year, in a way we didn’t anticipate, and you’ll see that show up in ad buys, of course,” said one NDA-bound tech operative with knowledge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s (DSCC) media strategy.
The DSCC made waves earlier this month when it pulled its ad buys from Florida to refocus on unseating Republican senators in Missouri and North Carolina.
Political spenders often do “false starts on significant campaigns,” said Monica Seebohm, who runs Tremor Video’s political and advocacy sales. “Our agencies are getting requests for large, last-minute advertising campaigns, but it seems their clients change direction based on the polls and decide not to spend.”
The Media Mix
When an anticipated wave of political spend doesn’t arrive, it hurts state media, newspapers and local broadcasters.
In Colorado, for instance, some regional networks adjusted their ad load and broadcasting schedule to juice inventory in what was expected to be a fiercely contested state.
But the Clinton campaign cut spending dramatically in Colorado earlier this past summer, and Clinton’s primary supporting PAC, Priorities USA, followed suit by suspending its ad buys in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Virginia to “look at other opportunities for us to expand the map,” according to chief strategist Guy Cecil.
But one state’s loss is another’s gain.
In New Hampshire, TV ad buying is expensive and inefficient because it requires purchasing in the Boston DMA, yet digital inventory is flying off the shelves at a premium of 20% or more, according to multiple industry sources.
The targeting can get narrower than state-level as well. Maine, one of two states (along with Nebraska) to divvy up Electoral College votes, is seeing a surge of spending in its contested 2nd Congressional District, which is worth one Electoral College vote.
“There are only so many people in [Maine’s 2nd District] using the internet at any given time, and then a subset of that has the key audience attributes,” said Eric Franchi, Undertone’s co-founder and senior VP of business development. The result is that any buyers without reserved price guarantees are driving up CPMs.
Semcasting data also underscores a newly emerged set of political battlegrounds. New Hampshire receives the most attention from PACs and party committees, followed by Indiana, North Carolina, Missouri and Nevada, according to founder and CEO Ray Kingman.
The catalyst for spend levels in these states isn’t a tight presidential race, Kingman added, but knockdown battles for Senate seats and governorships.
The two parties are approaching state-level spending from very different angles.
Democrats, sensing a runaway contest at the top of the ticket, are using presidential or top-down support to bolster state candidates. Hillary Clinton will begin visiting and spending heavily in Arizona, Indiana and Missouri, a decision The New York Times reports was made to help flip control of the currently Republican Senate.
The DSCC is taking its cues from the Clinton campaign when it pivots from a historical linchpin state like Florida to North Carolina and Missouri.
“We want our spending to be in concert with the presidential race because there’s an additive effect to the parallel campaigns, and state candidates with less infrastructure see benefits from a presidential ground operation too [like how Clinton’s visit will stir up all sorts of political outreach],” said the same DSCC media-buying source.
Republicans, on the other hand, are forced to take a bottom-up approach.
“If you’re an individual [Republican] state candidate, you have to rely on yourself and run your own sophisticated ground operation because you can’t rely on anybody from the top,” said CFB Strategies’ Anderson.
Republican senators and House candidates have been majorly out-fundraising Democratic counterparts since organizations like the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners PAC shifted all support away from the presidential race. But it’s rare that a Senate or House candidate has the infrastructure to make up for an uninvested presidential candidate.
Anderson and other sources pointed to Marco Rubio’s Florida Senate re-election campaign as an example of how this state-level focus can work. The DSCC’s retreat to Missouri and North Carolina can be seen as a move to pick up seats in those states, as well as a concession to Rubio’s operation.
Rubio also has infrastructure and data assets that resemble a presidential campaign, while other Republican Senate contenders, like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire or Joe Heck of Nevada, rely on super PACs and see less supporting spend from the top of the ticket.
Candidates and party committees also benefit from a centralized strategy and messaging, whereas super PACs are independent. The difference is a significant boon for Democrats in contested states.
The DSCC and Clinton campaign invest in concert with state candidates, sharing data, polling and messaging. A super PAC comes in blind and may end up promoting an issue the candidate would prefer not to highlight.
“I’ve seen situations where a group comes in to advocate on behalf of a candidate and they can be downright counterproductive,” Anderson said. “It’s not the same for party committees that have well-crafted messages along with the campaign. [Republican candidates] often have to just hope the PACs supporting them are doing so effectively.”
For example, the National Rifle Association buys ads that reinforce Republican messages, but if a candidate or party-level committee were to run the same ads, they would make sure to, say, segment out women who are known Republicans but support gun control.
“They’re throwing tons of money at the wall, but we’re actually getting money through the door,” said the DSCC source. “And some of these are states that haven’t opened a door for Democrats in a generation.”