$5.25 Billion Spent During the Biggest Midterm Ad Blitz Ever

In the wake of a nail-biting midterm (which is still continuing in a handful of states), much of the post-election analysis has rightfully focused on the record amount of ad spending by candidates and outside groups during the 2018 campaign season. Kantar Media analyzed spending on TV and digital media throughout 2018 and identified some stark divergences in strategy between the two major parties, including significantly higher spending by Democrats as well as a strict adherence to consistent messaging.

A record-breaking season

Records were indeed set in 2018, with total spending of $5.25 billion making 2018 the richest midterm election in history. It beat spending on the last midterm by 78% and was over 20% higher than the last presidential election.

Throughout 2018, television advertising remained central in the political world. Both local broadcast and local cable exceeded 2016’s Presidential election year totals. Cable nearly doubled its take from 2014 and broadcast showed a growth of nearly 50%. It will be worth watching the growth of addressable television platforms as they seem poised to do very well by political advertisers looking to use the historic strength of video combined with efficient targeting.

Digital ads frequently seen on Facebook and Google nearly quadrupled from 2014. The ability to target voters with messages tuned to what they care about and in an efficient manner remains as desirable for political brands as it does for private corporations. Money was no object during this campaign season. Sellers of TV ad time can be pleased at what took place this year all over the nation as spending exceeded what most analysts had forecasted.

Spending advantage goes to Democrats

Unlike in 2010 and 2014, Democrats outspent Republicans in state and federal races. Democrats had a 53/46 edge in spending in 2018 (a small amount of money was also spent by independent candidates). In 2010, Republicans led spending by a 54/45 margin fueled by negative sentiment towards the Affordable Care Act; in 2014, Republicans more narrowly led spending by a 51/47 margin.

The one item of the 2018 campaign that stood out was the well-honed messaging discipline displayed by all the candidates and groups that supported Democratic candidates. As of this writing, Democrats have easily exceeded the 23 seats gain they needed to retake control of the House of Representatives. The current count is 32 with a distinct chance that the total could go even higher. The Democrats clearly did their homework and polling on matters of the most importance to American voters.

Healthcare an important focus

When we look at the top races (US House, US Senate and Governor), ads supporting Democratic candidates reference health care a staggering 1,000,000 times. Republican ads referencing health care came in at a more modest 367,000. 49% of all ads for Democrats referenced health care. For ads specifically targeted to House races, that jumps to 59%. The common message in these ads claimed that Republican candidates were in favor of eliminating health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and often tallied the number of residents in the district that would be impacted by such a change.

Other references cited the increase in the cost of premiums; Medicare funding; the incredible cost of prescription drugs and donations to the opposition candidate by special interests (insurance companies, big pharma, etc.). It wasn’t until late in the cycle that some Republican candidates began to push back on these messages. By that time, it was too late as that message had been introduced and consistently reinforced not only by the Democratic candidate but also by nearly every outside group for weeks and months buoyed by record fundraising.

Meanwhile, Republican advertising focused on tax reform, immigration and record levels of employment. Swing district Republican House candidates reminded voters that no matter the message put forth by their Democratic opponent, a vote for that candidate was a vote for Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker of the House and that would promote a liberal legislative agenda. Minority Leader and perhaps Speaker-to-be Pelosi was in about one out of every ten Republican ads and one out of every four Republican ads in US House races.

This narrative was mirrored across the aisle where an anti-Trump sentiment was expressed in one out of every ten Democratic ads. In the more competitive races, Democrats went more anti-Trump than Republicans went in favor of the President in their ads. That could be attributable to the President’s approval rating in those states and districts.

The tax reform, immigration and jobs issues apparently did not create the impact Republicans were hoping for. Democrats pushed back on the benefits of tax reform by citing that most of the benefits in the tax reform package were received by the top 1% of taxpayers and not by middle class Americans. Some swing district Democrats came out in favor of tax cuts but only those focused on middle class families.  

Ultimately, a disciplined and well tested message reinforced by billions of dollars worked for Democrats in the midterm and regained them control of the US House for the first time since 2010. Senate Republicans are still awaiting the results of the race in Florida but can feel better knowing that they gained seats in the upper chamber. It should be an interesting and very noisy 2019 as both parties work to promote their legislative agendas ahead of the next Presidential election. As always, Kantar Media will be monitoring ad spending by candidates and interest groups, so stay tuned to learn more about their strategies and messages.

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