Biden's The Frontrunner. Nobody Told the GOP
For the entirety of the Democratic presidential primary, former Vice President Joe Biden has been the front-runner in every national poll that has been taken. Currently, he enjoys a 12 point lead in the Real Clear Politics average over his nearest challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders and a 14 point lead over second place challenger, Senator Elizabeth Warren. This is well outside any polling margin of error and despite the news cycle producing hills and valleys for this Democratic trio the one constant has been…stasis.
Typically, the opposing party—with its incumbent in The White House—looking upon this scenario would be attempting to define their [most likely] opponent, making him/her so undesirable to persuadable voters that before the primary victor can even replenish their campaign coffers for the general, they’re in an insurmountable hole. The Biden campaign might expect to feature heavily in Republican commercials.
If GOP media buyers and consultants are indicative of their party’s thinking, they believe that Biden’s lead is tentative and he will not be the favored candidate of the more progressive base that tends to determine the outcome of the primary process. Year to date, there have been 3,068 airings of campaign TV spots hostile to Joe Biden, with over $2M spent. All of them have been presidential ads and the Trump campaign accounts for 92% of this activity.
When looking at Warren and Sanders, the difference is marked. Warren has been targeted in TV ads to the tune of $8M and 15,646 airings. Only 14% of this activity has pertained to presidential advertising; the remainder has come in spots attacking Warren in ads for US Senate, House, Governor and State representatives. Sanders has been bludgeoned to an even greater degree, he is currently on the receiving end of $10.7M in ads negatively referencing him which have aired a total of 21,168 times. Only 10% of this activity has been ads in the presidential race. Like Warren, he is primarily being targeted in down ballot races.
When looking at which issues have been targeted by Republicans so far in 2019, it appears even more evident that they’re hoping this becomes a personality contest between President Trump and his Dem challenger. The primary issue which has been featured in GOP ads has been “pro-Trump” messaging, appearing in 81,207 airings of ads. This is followed by mentions of healthcare [71,136], taxes [67,829], jobs/unemployment [61,197] and immigration [48,496].
Comparing this with the messaging attending the Democrats’ [successful] 2018 mid-term ad war, the difference is marked. Healthcare was by far the issue which appeared the most in Democrat TV advertising, 1.1 million airings. This was followed by education [496,280], taxes [384,759], social issues [317,785] and anti-Trump [300,327].
The takeaway here is clear- the GOP wants to make this election about Trump, banking on his persona contrasting positively with Democrats. Though the Dems did make dislike of Trump an issue in 2018, it wasn’t the issue. They clearly wanted to focus more on pocketbook issues that Democrats have traditionally relied upon—healthcare, education and taxes.
Undoubtedly, these GOP tactics are being used to draw negative comparisons between Democrats—many of them of the moderate, “Blue Dog” variety—running in Senate, House and state rep races with their more left-leaning colleagues. Indeed, much of this 2019 spend is being driven by the Gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi—all of them red states somewhat more receptive to negative messaging concerning progressivism. However, it must also serve the GOP’s purpose of “touching up” these prospective Dem presidential candidates for fall 2020.
At Kantar CMAG, we have a saying: Advertising is the ultimate “tell.” Although all 2020 Presidential election polls show that Joe Biden is the most dangerous opponent for President Trump, the GOP brain trust is hedging its bets. If their ad messaging is any indicator, they’re preparing to face either Senator Warren or Senator Sanders in less than a year’s time.