Trump campaign pumps money into TV ads while Biden zeroes in on digital

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Donald Trump

FILE – In this combination of file photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020. (AP Photo, File)

The presidential campaign is slowly shifting out of virtual mode amid nationwide protests and easing lockdown restrictions despite the continuing coronavirus pandemic. The decidedly untraditional 2020 campaign continues, and President Trump and Joe Biden have taken diverging paths with their advertising strategies. 

The Trump campaign has spent nearly $20 million on television ads since mid-March when the pandemic began to shut down the United States, according to tracking by Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group. That spending includes more than $4.6 million on television in Florida, nearly $2.5 million in Pennsylvania, nearly $2 million in North Carolina, and more than $1 million apiece in both Michigan and Wisconsin. The president’s ads are also getting airtime in states like Arizona, Ohio and Iowa.
 
“The great American comeback has begun,” said the narrator in one of the president’s ads first aired Sunday in Pennsylvania. It goes on to tout the economy pre-pandemic. “Together we’ll make America great again,” it ends.

By comparison, the last time Biden’s campaign spent money on television ads, according to Kantar/CMAG, was on March 10 while he was still battling Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. At the time, his campaign had spent nearly $6 million on ads in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and Georgia. He’s spent nothing on television ads since. 

This comes as a series of recent national polls have Mr. Trump lagging behind the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, a CNN poll that had Mr. Trump trailing by as much as 14 points and a Monmouth poll where he trailed by 11 points, while other polls suggest a smaller gap closer to 7 points. Biden is also currently leading in polls in other battleground states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona. 

“You can tell by the pattern of ad buying by the Trump campaign that they are on the defensive,” said Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman. “Instead of expanding the electoral map to states like Minnesota which they had a year ago talked about wanting to do, they’re now trying to prevent Biden from expanding the map.”
 
Meanwhile, even as he struggled through the earliest Democratic primary states, Biden was able to endure, though he was outspent on television by opponents in multiple early contests.

Where Biden as not been spending on television ads, a growing number of pro-Democrat and anti-Trump super PACs have been filling the void recently. Priorities USA, the largest super PAC affiliated with the Democratic Party, has already spent millions on a series of ads in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona focused on the president’s handling of the coronavirus, as well as more recently his response to nationwide protests. It plans to spend $200 million overall by the election. 
 
Another Democratic super PAC, American Bridge PAC, has also spent millions focused on the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. This week, it announced a $20 million investment in battleground states focused on swing voters highlighting why they’ll be voting for Biden. 

“Our ad campaign is really going after the Obama- Trump voters,” said American Bridge president Bradley Beychok. “We’re cognizant that a lot of our Democratic base is very fired up and for good reason. But even with Trump, we’re seeing that people that supported him in 2016, that are the true sort of persuadable voters are moving away from him.”
 
Analysts note it’s not unusual for campaigns to leave TV spending the PACs in the early summer before the election. During the 2016 election cycle, then-candidate Trump was not on air with television ads from early May through mid-August. In 2012, the Obama and Romney campaigns both hit pause. But Biden’s campaign has been off air a while, and as Stutzman notes, there is a caveat. 
 
“The critical thing the Biden campaign has to be careful not to wait too long on… is to be definitional,” he said. “That includes biography, that includes exposing voters to the fact relentlessly that he can be empathetic, that he’s decent. You know all these personal traits that give him an advantage over Trump.”

While Biden camp has not been investing in television, it’s moving full speed ahead with digital advertising. According to ad tracking on Facebook, since mid-March, Biden has spent $16 million on Facebook ads, while Mr. Trump spent over $10 million. Since June 1, Biden’s investment of over $7 million outstrips the president’s nearly $2 million. The Biden ads range from some asking viewers to condemn Mr. Trump or to commit to voting for Biden — thus gathering their contact information — to other ads seeking contributions. 
 
And as his campaign saves cash on TV, the former vice president is also hurdling full force ahead with fundraising amid a scramble to overcome the disadvantage of running againstan incumbent president’s massive war chest. The campaign has clocked multiple virtual fundraisers a week, sometimes holding more than one a day, even during the pandemic. 
 
Multiple Biden donors tell CBS News they believe the former vice president has emerged with the right “empathy and leadership” for this moment in time. But many indicate they believe the attention should remain on the president’s action — or inaction — for now. 
 
“One has to remember that the re-election of the president is always a referendum on the incumbent. The reelection is always a referendum on his job performance,” said one longtime bundler.  
 
While some donors missed the in-person gatherings, more than a handful of bundlers CBS News spoke with indicated they’re happy with how the campaign is running the virtual events, acknowledging it allows the former vice president to reach more contributors nationwide and save on gathering costs. 
 
As Biden slowly ends his campaign from home and reenters the public sphere with small appearances — remarks in Philadelphia, a meeting with community leaders in Wilmington — many bundlers also indicated they’re satisfied with where the money is going right now. Their evidence? The polls that have been trending in Biden’s direction.

First published on June 13, 2020 / 2:31 PM

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