Trump, Biden shower ad money on Phoenix, Philadelphia, Florida’s I-4 corridor in final stretch

Bart Jansen

As President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden wage a ferocious advertising campaign focused on a half-dozen battleground states, ground zero is a handful of crucial television markets in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Florida is the biggest ad magnet. The tipping point of the perennial swing state runs along Interstate 4 from Tampa to Orlando, a belt that holds pockets of elderly voters, suburban women, Latinos, military service members – each among the demographic slices targeted to win the presidential race.

“The partisan divide is narrowest in these two markets,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Florida, who described her home area of Tampa and Orlando as “the swing markets in the swing state.”

"The whole campaign is right here,” MacManus said.

In what is projected to be a record-setting year for campaign spending, Floridians are seeing a hurricane of political ads. Arizona and Pennsylvania are also battlegrounds. Since Sept. 28, the top six markets have been:

•Tampa, where viewers saw 9,177 ads for $9 million. Biden was supported by 6,580 ads and Trump by 2,597 ads.

•Orlando, where viewers saw 8,781 ads for $10.7 million. Biden was supported by 6,079 ads and Trump by 2,702 ads.

•Miami, where viewers saw 8,128 ads for $10.8 million. Biden was supported by 5,737 ads and Trump by 2,391 ads.

•Philadelphia, where viewers saw 7,118 ads for $8.8 million. Biden was supported by 5,581 ads and Trump by 1,537 ads.

•Phoenix, where viewers saw 6,866 ads for $10.9 million. Biden was supported by 3,710 ads and Trump by 3,156 ads.

•Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where viewers saw 5,527 ads for $4 million. Biden was supported by 3,881 ads and Trump by 1,646 ads.

The Sunshine State is a melting pot, where the campaigns can test their competitive messaging. Biden has focused on the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 and health care. He warns about Trump being a threat to Social Security and Medicare. Trump compared the economic recovery to his own recovery from the virus and warned that Biden would be a puppet of the radical left, threatening Second Amendment rights and raising taxes.

“If you want a lesson in micro-targeting of TV ads, just spend a day in these two markets,” MacManus said of Tampa and Orlando. “Age targeting. Gender targeting. Issue targeting. It’s pinpointed here.”

Before Election Day, President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden attack one another in online ads.

How much is at stake?

The 2020 campaign is projected to spend a record-setting $11 billion – about 50% more than in 2016 when accounting for inflation, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The presidential ads won’t dictate who wins. Trump was vastly outspent in 2016 and still beat Democrat Hillary Clinton. Special-interest groups can outspend the candidates.

Beneath that umbrella, Trump and Biden shower hundreds of millions of dollars in ads on battleground states. Advertising – each candidate putting his money where his mouth is – offers a glimpse of each campaign's priorities flitting across broadcast and cable television, radio and online.

Biden’s record-setting fundraising has outpaced Trump’s down the final stretch, which allows the challenger to run more ads in more states than the incumbent. Through Aug. 31, Biden’s campaign raised $540 million and Trump’s campaign raised $476 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The difference is starker when combined with the national party committees. During August, Biden and the Democratic National Committee raised a record $365 million; Trump and the Republican National Committee raised $210 million.

Biden announced he raised an additional $383 million in September, and Trump hasn't reported his figure. Biden was likely to outpace Trump again after big fundraising days following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a chaotic debate with Trump.

The fundraising advantage allowed Biden's campaign to buy twice as many television ads in battlegrounds and outspend Trump's campaign nationwide.

Biden has spent $223 million airing television ads 356,366 times since April 9, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Trump spent $161 million on 261,633 airings during the same period, the study found.

During September, Biden spent $153 million on television and radio ads, nearly tripling Trump’s $57 million, according to the tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Outside groups narrowed the difference to $189 million supporting Biden and $127 million supporting Trump, according to Advertising Analytics.

The gap narrowed as the campaigns head to the finish line, but Biden kept a significant advantage. From Sept. 28 through Oct. 11, Biden’s campaign spent nearly $56 million to air television ads 80,000 times while Trump’s campaign spent nearly $32 million to air ads 32,000 times, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

“Although the impact of ads in presidential races tends to be fairly small, Biden’s consistent ad advantages of two-to-one or even three-to-one in the battleground states has to account for at least some of his expanding lead in the polls over the past few weeks,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

Trump has outpaced Biden in online ads throughout the campaign, although Biden is catching up in the closing weeks. Trump has spent $165.8 million on ads on Facebook and Google since mid-April and $33.8 million since late September, according to the Wesleyan study. Biden spent $130.1 million on online ads since mid-April and $34.7 million since late September, according to the study.

President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign event with Florida sheriffs in Tampa on July 31.

Where are ads targeted?

During September, Biden outspent Trump 2-to-1 on television ads in North Carolina and Florida, 3-to-1 in Michigan and 4-to-1 in Pennsylvania, according to Advertising Analytics.

One of the latest hot spots has been Phoenix, which is competitive for the presidency and the Senate, where $24.4 million was spent the week ending Oct. 9, according to Advertising Analytics.

"I think spending indicates that both campaigns believe that Arizona is in play," said Kim Fridkin, foundation professor of political science at Arizona State University and co-author of "Taking Aim at Attack Advertising."

"Biden's advertising is making the case that COVID-19 needs to be controlled before we can bring back the economy, and that may resonate with voters," said Fridkin, who acknowledged she hasn't conducted a systematic analysis of the ads. "I also think Trump's advertising focusing on his successes in growing the economy would be effective as well. I don't think that messages focusing on immigration or riots in the streets would resonate with voters in Arizona."

Online ads can be tailored to specific regions of a state or specific audiences. For example, Biden's Google ads can target Philadelphia or Pittsburgh rather than the entire state of Pennsylvania.

"They're flooding the state," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "A lot of them are interest groups supporting the candidates."

Television ads are much cheaper than national ads, so stations in Tampa, Orlando or Phoenix are a bargain compared with a network. Based on viewership and ad costs at 1,100 stations in October 2018, Advertising Analytics and Nielsen found that Minneapolis, Tampa, Orlando and Phoenix offered some of the cheapest opportunities to reach viewers.

For example, the cost to reach independent viewers was $26 per thousand in Orlando during "The View," $38 in Tampa during "The Late, Late Show With James Corden," $38 in Minneapolis during "Nightline" and $46 in Phoenix during "Good Morning America" Sunday. The cost to reach a thousand independent voters can reach hundreds of dollars on other programs.

"While overall advertising trends are shifting to digital media, our data has shown that broadcast television remains an incredibly efficient option for political advertisers," the report said.

President Donald Trump speaks at a Students for Trump event in June at the Dream City Church in Phoenix.

Does advertising matter?

The amount spent on advertising doesn’t determine the winner of the race. Trump was outspent nearly 2-to-1 in 2016 – $398 million to $768 million – and still defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

One of Trump’s advantages, which became far greater as president, was his ability to generate free coverage of his campaign, rather than buying advertising. Trump received free media worth $5.9 billion from July 2015 through October 2016, about double Clinton’s $2.8 billion, according to analysis firm mediaQuant.

"What's fascinating is how static the race has been," Madonna said. "It doesn't seem like much is moving the dial."

A new study of presidential campaigns from 2004 to 2012 evaluated spending on advertising and grassroots outreach such as door-to-door canvassing and phone calls. The “air war” of advertising was more effective at persuading undecided voters, while the “ground game” was better at encouraging voter turnout, according to the study in INFORMS journal Marketing Science.

“While field campaigning tends to specifically focus on turnout of those whose minds are already made up, television advertising, which is less targeted but more informational in nature, tends to be better received by those who are undecided and could still change their minds,” said Doug Chung of Harvard University, who wrote the report with Lingling Zhang of the University of Maryland.

One concern is that viewers flooded with ads during every commercial break will ignore them or turn the channel. MacManus said early voters turn their ballots in and don't watch any more.

"I think there's a saturation point that is somewhat easily reached," MacManus said. "if you see a new one, it grabs your attention. But if it's the same old – whatever."

A supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, made a donation at the Lackawanna County Democratic Committee headquarters on Sept. 30 in Peckville, Pa.