Fewer Political Ads Now, Doesn’t Mean Less Advertising Later

Anyone sitting around fretting over or just “counting” the political ads that are NOT running due to the unprecedented disruption wrought by COVID-19 might want to put on a mask and go for a brisk walk to clear the head of misguided obsession. Not that it’s hard to understand the chaos mindset; 2020 was an unusual year for political ad spending well before the virus hit, due to gargantuan outlays by Tom Steyer and even more lavish spending by Mike Bloomberg.

More than $700 million was spent on broadcast TV by the end of March, a milestone not hit until August of 2016, and one that had been projected to arrive this year around July, amidst projections for the year overall that skewed high when compared to years past.

However, certain patterns hold. The relative dip in 2020 spending started rather abruptly and was not due to the virus, but rather to Elizabeth Warren neatly shivving Bloomberg in the February debate. Bloomberg’s demise may have aligned with the pandemic, but the ad drop-off that proceeded was perfectly in keeping with historical trends. Political ad spending is always at its lowest point in March, April, and May.

While some political ad buyers we’ve talked to are looking to take advantage of rates that are likely to be low in May, June, July, and August—and they may be able to do that—it’s September, and October/November (which we might as well think of as one “month,” given the variable nature of where Election Day falls) when we’ll begin to see the effects of pent-up demand and learn how 2020 stacks up to past election years. Historically speaking, two thirds of all ad spending takes place during that two-month timeframe, which this year coincides with the moment in which much of the country is likely to be experimenting with how to restart economic engines while setting up new norms that protect public health.

As such, for Q2, keeping a watchful eye on fundraising, as well as imagining how the fundamentals of political advertising (total dollars as a function of money raised and the number of competitive races) and the durable facts of the current presidential contest (Democrats still want to defeat Trump) might manifest in a changed fall landscape is a better mental exercise than ruminating on advertising in this odd moment (or doing jigsaw puzzles).

First, where will the eyeballs be? Never have more Americans spent more time in front of more screens of different sizes—many of them streaming ad-free subscription content. How quickly that changes depends in large part on how soon sports come back, and the NFL, followed by college football, is the place to look for insight.

Second, what about that pent-up demand, a natural function coming off the summer rate slump that is likely to be even more pronounced this year? Advertising revenue is a function of units and rates, which competition from advertisers outside the political sector will likely drive up. Lots of cars will be coming off their leases over the next few months and automakers will need to advertise, not to mention there is likely to be an uptick in general back-to-school advertising as companies seek to take advantage of the most-longed-for “first day of school” in American history. National advertisers may also buy more local (driving up prices) if certain areas of the country are more or less “open” than others.

Of course, disposable income is going to be lower, and that will not only impact household purchases but also small-dollar political donations. That said, campaigns will set out to raise according to their needs, which seem to be expanding. The curve has been consistently flat on Trump job approval over the course of his entire presidency. This fact indicates a true toss-up, which means more states likely to be engaged (and more dollars spent) than in 2016—at least in states like Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. As reported by Inside Elections, there is also an increase in competitive Senate races, with three new races moving into competitive territory this week.

More competition means a need for higher-touch campaigns, no mean feat in a year when physical proximity is verboten. If you must fret about something, you could worry about the share of the bounty that will go to digital, especially because data from the primary revealed no clear trend on that score. But with travel, rallies, and in-person campaigning severely curtailed, and campaigns striving to maximize communication channels that they can control, paid advertising in general, and television advertising in particular, will likely be the best vehicle for campaigns to deliver the messages they want delivered.

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