Down-ballot candidates are facing a strategic dilemma. In a year when the top of the ticket of both parties is pulling down historically high negatives, they can take a risk and go up on TV early, which puts them in front of the coming advertising storm. Or they can hold fire and wait to see how the presidential race unfolds over the next few weeks.
On the one hand, locking in early buys means wagering hard-raised dollars at a time when fewer voters are paying attention to the national debate. The upside, particularly for Republican incumbents, could be the ability to define themselves early before the wave of presidential advertising, special interest spending, and the anti-GOP, anti-Donald Trump ad barrage drowns them out.
Given the unconventional nature of Trump’s effort, it’s far from clear just how much money he’ll actually spend on the airways.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (R) has already run some 3,000 spots at a cost of $3.1 million this year, more than three quarters of them were positive until Katie McGinty emerged as his Democratic challenger.
In Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman’s (R) campaign announced its reserved $14 million worth of TV ads statewide and $1 million on digital pre-roll between now and November. While that buy is spaced out, it’s noteworthy that Portman’s campaign felt the need to place its cards on the table so aggressively by announcing the figures in a press release.
Media buys have been creeping earlier into the summer for the past two cycles. But 2016 is a unique convergence of unpopular (likely) presidential nominees and resources that would otherwise go into the White House race migrating to congressional contests. That’s raised the stakes over an early buy and stoked a debate raging in media consultancies from K Street to Old Town to Sacramento.
“All these candidates are looking at these numbers and thinking, ‘I can’t get there unless I exceed what the standard bearer of the party did therefore I need to show some independence,’” said John Brabender, a Republican media consultant. “Come October, if [the top of the ticket] is a positive thing great, but I can’t count on that.”
Clinton’s average “strongly unfavorable” rating between March and April is 5 points higher than previous highs from 1980-2012, according to Fivethirtyeight. When it comes to Trump, he’s “on another planet. Trump’s average ‘strongly unfavorable’ rating, 53 percent, is 20 percentage points higher than every candidate’s rating besides Clinton’s.”
GOP media consultant Casey Phillips argues Trump won’t be a drag in certain districts — New York’s 23rd Congressional District being one of them, where Phillips is working for Rep. Tom Reed (R), who has formally endorsed the presumptive GOP nominee. Phillips says his client, in the past, went up on the air early, but didn't feel the need to this cycle in order to put distance between himself and Trump.
“The old Labor Day campaign’s been dead for a while,” he said. “Fourth of July barbecues, there’s going to be politics talked at every single one of them.”
Overall, Phillips said he hasn’t heard from clients worried about what Trump will do to the GOP brand. “I haven’t seen a flock of people wanting me to throw independent into scripts. It’s not something people are afraid of right now.”
Pre-booking airtime has been the norm for the past couple cycles, with Democrats more keenly adopting that strategy than Republicans. In New Hampshire 2014, the DSCC pre-booked in the summer, while American Crossroads came in at the last minute, recalled Neal McDonald, a Republican media buyer.
For the latter, that proved costly. For the 6 p.m. news on WMUR in the second week of October, the DSCC paid $2,800 per spot while Crossroads was paying $10,000 per spot.
This cycle, the DSCC and Senate Majority PAC have laid in tens of millions of dollars for September through Election Day in states like Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Moreover, Priorities USA has reportedly pre-booked in swing states in support of Clinton to the tune of $90 million, according to McDonald.
Of course some Republicans can’t pre-book even if they wanted to distance themselves from Trump. In Florida, there’s five competitive Republicans vying for Marco Rubio’s open Senate seat.
“Those candidates have a primary to worry about, and the optics of placing a media buy for the general election would be putting the cart before the horse even though the national committees supporting the Democratic candidate have close to $20 million on the books,” said McDonald.
Despite the sizable amount of dollars already spent, the ultimate question is one many media consultants would rather not confront: Are major media buys losing their effectiveness? Evidence how well paid media worked for the candidates who relied on it during the Republican primary.
Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t feeling that same early spending pressure, argues one of the party’s media consultants who works with congressional candidates in competitive districts. This consultant said there hasn’t been a push for candidates on the left to go up early to distance themselves from Clinton, or out of concern for being definitively drowned up as we close in on the fall.
“We're sticking with our game plans to go on the air when it makes sense from a budgetary point of view, which should always be a component driving media strategy,” the consultant told C&E. “Another reason is that Trump's weaknesses as a candidate balance off any weaknesses of Hillary. There is so much fluidity right now, that I think it's hard for anyone to divine where things will be in September and October. So spending money earlier than is wise doesn't make much sense.”
It’s not just the top of the ticket down-ballot candidates need to consider. Millions in ad spending from outside groups is expected to flood into each contested congressional contest. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is just the latest to unveil its spending plan, boasting of its “Save the Senate” strategy in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. If candidates stay quiet, some consultants argue, they risk ceding the debate to outside groups.
“All these people are already on because they’re not sure they’re going to play in the presidential,” said Brabender. “There’s just so much going on that people feel like they’ve got to hedge their bets.”
Correction: The original version of this story noted an early media buy from Rep. Tom Reed's (R) campaign. Reed has not yet run TV ads.