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Can Trump's Big Ad Push Spark a November Surprise?

Jeffrey H. Anderson

In any other presidential election, commentators would regard it as big news if one candidate had enjoyed a huge advantage in ad spending but then saw that advantage greatly diminished, or even flipped, in the stretch run. But this isn’t any other presidential election. Apparently distracted by other matters, commentators have somehow missed the fact that this is exactly what is happening in the Trump-Clinton race.

For Trump, that’s like finally getting to bring an 11th player onto the field after having had to play with 10 for most of the game.
As of Oct. 15, Hillary Clinton had enjoyed an advantage of more than six-to-one over Donald Trump in television and radio advertising, according to figures published by the Associated Press. There’s usually about a one-week lag between the end of a given week’s worth of ads and the polling average most affected by those ads. As of Oct. 22, Clinton’s huge ad-spending advantage had helped her build, or maintain, a lead of 6.1 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polling.

But Clinton will have to try to maintain that lead through Nov. 8 while no longer enjoying anything close to the ad-spending advantage that has been propping her up to date. Indeed, it appears that ad spending over the final weeks of the campaign will be about dead even — and could even favor Trump. Advertising Age reports that, as of Oct. 19, Trump had reserved $42.8 million in TV and radio advertising the remainder of the way, compared with $35.7 million for Clinton.

That’s a huge change. For Trump, that’s like finally getting to bring an 11th player onto the field after having had to play with 10 for most of the game. It’s like having his ace pitcher take the mound for game 7 after he’s been unavailable through the series’ first six games. Such a development has the potential to make a big difference in public opinion on the date that matters most: Nov. 8.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Trump’s ad spending has actually correlated a fair amount with his polling success to date. The only time Trump has cut Clinton’s ad-spending advantage even to 2-to-1 (rounding to the nearest whole number) over a two-week period — which occurred during late August and early September — he cut Clinton’s lead in the RCP average to just 1 point. In the subsequent weeks, Trump reduced his ad spending significantly, and Clinton’s lead expanded.

For those who might think Trump’s current ad push is coming too late, the RCP average as of October 24 finds that nearly 10 percent of the electorate isn’t yet backing either major candidate, compared with just 6 percent at this point in 2012, 6.8 percent in 2008, and 5.8 percent in 2004. That’s in a two-way race. In a four-way race, less than 85 percent of the electorate is currently backing either of the two major candidates, and more than 7 percent aren’t yet backing Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, either.

In other words — there appear to be more votes still up for grabs than we’re used to seeing at this point in the race.

The Associated Press reports that Trump’s ad spending has already been ramping up some in recent weeks. After having spent an average of just $1.6 million per week from Sept. 11 to 24 — compared with Clinton’s $18.6 million per week — Trump spent $6.7 million during the week of Oct. 2 to 8. He then spent $10.3 million during the week of Oct. 10 to 15 (the most recent week for which figures are available), by far his highest tally to date.

At the same time, Trump has expanded the map. From Sept. 11 to 24, he ran ads only in four states. During the week of Oct. 2 to 8, he ran ads in nine. From Oct. 9 to 15, he expanded that tally to 10 states: New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maine. Trump is also reportedly running $2 million in ads in Virginia in late October and early November.

It seems likely Trump’s increased ad spending over the past two weeks partly explains why, in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Clinton has been unable to expand her lead in the RCP average by more than about 1 point. Clinton’s lead in the RCP average was 4.7 points on Oct. 7, the day that tape was unveiled. It rose to a height of 7.1 points and is now (as of Oct. 24) at 5.5 points — an increase of just 0.8 points since the tape’s release.

Nate Silver and others seem to have missed this. In a column on Oct. 20 entitled “Clinton Probably Finished Off Trump Last Night,” Silver shows no awareness of Trump’s increased ad spending or of the possibility that it may actually top Clinton’s the rest of the way. He simply echoes elite opinion in claiming that Trump lost the third debate, even though Trump seemed to get the better of the exchanges on essentially every policy issue. Silver writes, “Trump has had a significant advertising deficit,” without noting that it is Clinton who may have the advertising deficit the rest of the way. This would seem to be a rather significant oversight.

If elites end up being shocked on election night, then Trump’s last-minute ad push — made possible by his having largely held his fire until this point — will likely have played a major role in their bewilderment.

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