Generations of political operatives have been conditioned to start spending resources on major voter contact efforts in the final months of an election cycle, holding back the vast majority of advertising until swing voters are tuning in and the clock is running out.
And as I wrote for C&E earlier this year, “There’s wisdom in the old advertising adage: ‘Shout loudest when people are paying the most attention.’ But there have always been exceptions to the rule.”
In a pre-2016 era, and perhaps before the Citizens United ruling changed money in politics as we know it, that approach made sense. It was the right way to do things and the most efficient use of dollars.
But today’s tribal political environment, evidenced by record-breaking turnout in 2018 and 2019, has upended the regular playbook when it comes to political advertising. And the proof is in the spending trends as reported in 2019. According to a recent piece in the Cook Political Report, “just over $32.5 million has (already) been spent in eight key (Senate) races.”
Now, I think there are two serious questions consultants and political academics alike will reflect on: did the millions of dollars spent on ads in 2019 yield a real return on investment on Election Day 2020? And likely tougher to answer, is this earlier-than-early spending in federal races the “new normal” in political advertising?
In addition to the outcome at the ballot box, the first question is answered through measuring critical indicators of the condition of an incumbent and challenger as the cycle progresses. Historically important measurements of electoral health are things like job approval, a favorable-to-unfavorable score and, of course, the ballot test.
Efficient spending in a defensive scenario means building a wall around an incumbent’s job approval, image rating, and their ballot support. Effective investments on behalf of an offensive effort span from growing the candidate’s name recognition to ultimately litigating a concise case for change.
Where this is the “new normal” in terms of spending will be harder to predict — for a host of reasons. First, we know 2020 is expected to be unlike any election cycle in history. This is anticipated to be true by way of dollars being raised, and the forecasting of record-breaking turnout that will build on the trends of 2018 and 2019.
Second, there’s a likelihood that several groups are spending their resources early for a number of reasons. The simple rule of supply and demand means an advertising spot can go farther in the pre-election year. Unique to 2020 is the intent to get ahead of both the Democratic presidential primary contest, where marketing dollars will move state to state as the race progresses and in advance of the tidal wave of general election cash flowing through states that have overlap between tough presidential and Senate contests.
Despite these political assumptions about the unique nature of 2020, the treatment of the increasingly dissipating group of “swing voters” also appears to be evolving.
It’s an accepted assumption that swing voting blocs, meaning those who ultimately determine the outcome of an election, don’t start tuning in until voting day is in sight. Hence the stockpile-your-cash-and-wait advertising strategy. But evolutions in both technology and data science lend campaigns the ability to launch one-to-one advertising on video programming platforms and through digital properties to their “swing” voter audiences.
This has made it that much harder for the casual voter to turn the channel and tune it out. And sophisticated entities have adapted to these technological and scientific changes, adjusting their overall strategy and with some deciding to spend early to take advantage of greater targeting capabilities.
In fact, these reasons alone are likely contributing on some scale to the decision making for outside, partisan groups to be ripping up the old playbook and spending bigger and earlier than ever.
Indeed, as consultants work to measure real returns on this early spending, it’s necessary to first acknowledge that investment decisions differ based on what side of the field you’re on. Spending programs and the construction of a narrative is different through the lens of defense versus offense.
With that understanding, 2019 has yielded disparity in spending through party lines. This is especially evident by way of the investments of Democratic candidates and their group allies seeking to build support for their yet-to-be-determined nominees in a number of Senate races where they’ll ultimately be competing against strong Republican incumbents.
The strategic aims of this kind of early investment make sense at face value. Expand the playing field as much as cash will permit with the hope that there will be greater elasticity to move the ball down the line in several contests versus a narrow handful in the heat of the general.
That said, I will put my money behind the projection that no matter how much is spent, if the contours of the messaging and the targeting ultimately driving the placement isn’t correct, then the only return on investment will be that of committing the ultimate cardinal sin in politics: confusing motion with progress.
Ashlee Rich Stephenson is the National Political Director and a Vice President at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce