$1.3 billion and counting: where presidential ad campaign spending stands right now


Editor’s note: This post includes spending data analysis by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown. Scroll down to see the charts.

Advertising outlay on the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign has hit $1.3 billion, with Democrats outspending Republicans by a rather astonishing factor of 10-to-1.

The $1.3 billion total, which includes TV and radio advertising as well as digital spending across Facebook and Google brands, comes to us via the latest Ad Age Campaign Ad Scorecard analysis—an ongoing project led by Ad Age Datacenter Director of Data Management Kevin Brown in partnership with Kantar/CMAG. The figure tracks spending from Jan. 1, 2019, through Election Day 2020, including any advance purchases of ad space that had been booked by May 11.

Given an incumbent Republican president and the wide range of Democrat hopefuls who battled amongst themselves through the spring, you’d expect a disparity in spending by the two parties tilted heavily toward the Dems. But Datacenter’s tally shows that the gap to date—nearly $1.1 billion—remains almost absurdly distorted by a couple of wildcards that, at this point, seem like distant memories.

Those historical factors: Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg

The two billionaire presidential wannabes defied the usual laws of campaign gravity by stubbornly continuing to run even as they underperformed in terms of polling and especially delegates. Usually campaign fundraising dries up when a given candidate fails to achieve meaningful traction in the marketplace, but Steyer’s and Bloomberg’s fundraising involved reaching for their own checkbooks. Ultimately, their combined ad spending totalled $815 million, as tallied by Ad Age Datacenter. They finally got around to reading the handwriting on the wall on, respectively,  Feb. 29 and March 4 (the dates they suspended their campaigns).

Since then, the biggest wildcard of all, the coronavirus pandemic, has further upended the usual rules of the game. Among the two remaining major candidates, the Republican incumbent is the big spender. Trump’s campaign has burned through $72 million on buying campaign ads, with the bulk of it—$47 million—on digital. As we’ve noted previously, Trump’s digital spending has largely been about energizing his base with fundraising ads, most notably on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the ad spending by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, comes to $41 million, with just $20 million devoted to digital. And across our three tracked platforms—TV, radio and digital—the spending mostly came during the primary season.

What happens next? Biden, who faces a political fundraising environment depressed by the COVID-19 recession, will likely continue to spend comparatively modestly. President Trump will, of course, continue to use his pandemic press conferences as self-congratulatory quasi-rallies—free advertising for the Trump brand, so to speak, that costs him nothing. As for the actual Trump campaign, well, Brad Parscale, the digital-savvy chief of the reelection effort, promises to … obliterate Biden:


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