Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super-PAC that backs Hillary Clinton, said in mid-May that it had reserved $96 million in television airtime leading up to the November general election. The announcement was calculated to telegraph the seriousness of the Democrats’ campaign against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Trump responded with a short, cheaply made video featuring a photograph of a young Bill Clinton smoking a cigar transposed with an image of the White House. The voices of two women who claim the former president made unwanted sexual advances plays in the background. “Here we go again?” pops up in the closing frame. The clip, posted to Instagram, went directly to 1.6 million people.
Trump has benefited from free coverage from news media in a way that no modern candidate has (estimated value: $3 billion). His campaign spent only about $19 million on TV ads in the primaries, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), which tracks ad spending. That was far less than Jeb Bush, whose super-PAC blew through $70 million. Trump has also been a shrewd user of social media, where he maintains a dialogue with his supporters.
But his approach, based largely on his celebrity, is one that can work only for him. For everyone else, TV ads are still the preferred means of reaching the most potential voters. Presidential candidates and super-PACs spent more than $400 million this primary season. Total TV ad spending by all campaigns, including state and local races, is expected to reach $4.4 billion, according to CMAG, eclipsing the record $3.8 billion spent in 2012.
Broadcasters reaped record revenue from campaigns for the first quarter of the year. Tribune Media, which owns or operates 42 local TV stations, including some in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, forecasts taking in $200 million in political ads this year, a 20 percent increase from 2012. “Political has been a major tailwind for us for a number of years,” says John Rogers Jr., chairman of Ariel Investments, which has invested in TV station owners Meredith and Tegna, the media arm spun off from Gannett last year. “It just continues to grow and surprise.”
The sustained increase has been driven in part by congressional and gubernatorial candidates as the amount of money available for such campaigns has grown, thanks to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that relaxed limits on campaign donations. More than 137,000 broadcast TV spots have already run since January for House and Senate races, at an estimated cost of $122 million, according to CMAG. The political groups backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and their associates have committed more than $42 million to reserve ad time through September to benefit Senate candidates in Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Koch groups also expect to spend heavily on the Senate race in Florida.
The flood of TV ads comes even though fewer people are watching broadcast and cable TV than were watching four years ago. According to ratings company Nielsen, prime-time audiences have shrunk 9 percent since 2008. Overall TV ad sales would be flat this year from last if not for the election and the Summer Olympics, according to media buyers Magna Global.
Political spending on digital ads is forecast to soar to $1 billion this year, from about $159 million in 2012, according to estimates from Borrell Associates, another ad-tracking company. The estimate includes $35 million spent by Priorities USA to bolster its pro-Clinton TV campaign. That should concern TV station owners who think political spending will continue to grow every election cycle, says Richard Greenfield, a media analyst for New York-based research firm BTIG. “I think what everyone has to think about is: Is this the last hurrah?” he says.
The shift to digital might be even more pronounced this year if not for contracts that give political strategists a percentage of ad spending. That creates an incentive for them to maximize the amount of airtime candidates buy. “The dollars [will] go to TV until the consulting class changes the way they get comped,” says Bill Day, a vice president at media consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “The system is rigged to drive TV advertising.”
As he grows into his role as the de facto leader of the GOP, Trump has embarked on a program to raise more than $1 billion by November. He’s also established a joint fundraising committee with the party—the Trump Make America Great Again Committee—that allows donors to give as much as $449,400, which will be split among the candidate and national and state party coffers. The money will pay for offices and field staff, as well as TV ads.
Younger Republican strategists say Trump should push to bring the party into his post-TV world. In 2014, Bentley Hensel, then 22, relied on digital ads placed on Facebook, Google, and Pandora to help his relatively unknown candidate win a district attorney race in rural Louisiana, while his better-financed opponents bought local airtime. “We pretty much owned the internet in Rapides Parish,” says Hensel, who’s since moved to Virginia to work as a GOP consultant. TV ads just don’t work very well, he says: “You’re taking a sledgehammer to a job that takes a scalpel.”