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The Impact of COVID-19 on Political Ad Spending and Messaging

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Democratic presidential candidate, former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders … [+] (R) greet each other with an elbow as they join the 11th presidential debate on March 15, 2020 from MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

The effects of COVID-19 are widespread and will continue well into 2020 and beyond. As a result, the pandemic is having an impact on federal, state and local elections, which will last until election day. This will have an impact on political advertising revenue, campaign strategies, appearances and media coverage. Two-thirds of Americans expect COVID-19 to disrupt the November general election, according to a poll by Pew Research.

Before COVID-19, the Democratic Party unexpectedly teamed up around former Vice President Joe Biden as a presidential candidate. There had been a total of 28 candidates before the party agreed on Biden. With the flood of candidates, including two billionaires (Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer), Steve Passwaiter, the Vice President and General Manager of Kantar CMAG, wrote: “2020 was an unusual year for political advertising spending long before the coronavirus emerged.”

After Super Tuesday on March 3, most of Biden’s celebrity rivals were eliminated from the race and supported the former vice president. On April 8, Bernie Sanders resigned and announced his support for Biden. This sudden unity had an impact on policy ad revenue, particularly at Bloomberg, which had spent nearly $ 580 million on his candidacy. In total, over $ 1 billion was spent by all Democratic presidential candidates.

Political advertising money wasn’t just limited to the White House race. There are also a number of competitive races with seats in Congress. Advertising Analytics reported that weekly house and senate races spend peaked at $ 21.5 million prior to Super Tuesday and steadily declined to $ 5 million by the end of the month. Additionally, as of March 17th, Biden stopped running traditional media ads. Passport waiter notes: “Political advertising spending is always lowest in March, April and May. “

When the Democrats behind Biden unified, the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread. Fifteen states have postponed their primary dates, many of them moving from the early spring dates to June. In addition, several states have announced that the voting will take place entirely by post.

New York, which originally had its presidential primaries scheduled for April 28th, moved them to June 23rd. When New York became an epicenter for COVID-19 and Biden was the alleged candidate, the state cited the primary as “a beauty”. Competition that the state cannot afford in view of the coronavirus epidemic, ”said the presidential election. The primary was recently reinstated by a federal judge.

On the other hand, Wisconsin chose not to change its April 7th primary date. Ohio moved its state primary date from March 17 to April 28, with voters using the mail. The Pew Research poll also found that 70% of Americans prefer a person to vote by mail if they so choose. Broken down by party affiliation, Democrats are more likely to believe that COVID-19 will affect elections and are more likely to prefer postal votes.

The Democrats have postponed their convention, originally scheduled for July 13-17, to the week of August 17. Milwaukee will be the host city. The Republicans have scheduled their convention for August 24-27 in Charlotte. Depending on the status of the pandemic, the conference dates can be postponed again or canceled entirely in both cases.

As COVID-19 spread, candidates initially avoided the topic because they did not want to politicize the global pandemic. In the meantime, that has changed. According to Advertising Analytics, the first political ads on television addressing COVID-19 came from Michael Bloomberg in early March. Since then, the number of various political advertisements citing COVID-19 has grown steadily, reaching 64 in the week of April 25th.

Expect political ads mentioning the pandemic to continue for the time being. Advertising Analytics says as long as it is It’s difficult to project messaging trends too far as the political landscape is changing so rapidly that COVID-19 will be the biggest advertising topic in 2020. However, not all ads will cover this topic. We can already see that the curve of ads mentioning COVID-19 is smoothing out in around 40 to 45% of political ads. However, this could go up or down slightly depending on whether there’s a second wave, or a vaccine, or some other drastic event. During the week of March 10, candidates on the local broadcast spent $ 467,000 on ads mentioning COVID-19. In the latest data available (the week of April 28), it had risen to $ 3.2 million.

Unsurprisingly, most of these ads come from super PACs like America First and Priorities USA, which run in presidential states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. COVID-19 ads are also prevalent in competitive Senate races in Maine, Kentucky, and Montana. The advertising messages vary, says Ben Taber, account manager at Advertising Analytics. “By and large, we see incumbents touting their response to the crisis while challengers say the response has been inadequate. We also see advertisements that simply thank the workers at the forefront of the crisis. ”

In his December 2019 report, Vincent Letang, the EVP of Market Intelligence at MAGNA, forecast a 38% increase in political advertising dollars in 2020 compared to 2016. With COVID-19, Letang had lowered its forecast to + 26% in March. Letang names three main sources of political donation: corporations, large donors, and small donors. Given the current economic climate, Letang expects corporations and small donors to cut their political donations, which will impact advertising spending, while large donors maintain or even increase their campaign donations.

Letang predicts $ 5 billion will be spent on political advertising, which should pick up in the third quarter and run through election day. As in previous years, local television will generate the most advertising revenue at $ 3.3 billion. This comes at a time when local TV stations are reporting significant losses in advertising revenue despite rising audience ratings, as many cyclical product categories have cut their budgets. MAGNA also predicts direct mail at $ 500 million, social media at $ 400 million, and digital video at $ 200 million.

Advertising analysis expects a higher proportion of the budget for media spending at rallies and other forms of personal promotion that seem to be off the table. As a result, they have increased their political media spending projections for 2020 overall by about 12% to over $ 6.5 billion.

Looking ahead, Viamedia President and CEO Mark Lieberman believes the 2020 campaign will be the 19th without rallies. In 2020, those surrogates will be the media, especially television and digital. As Lieberman notes: “Television, with its image, sound and movement, remains the best medium for creating awareness, while digital media enables candidates to shake the virtual hand of voters. Bloomberg’s cross-platform media strategy of spending big bucks on television combined with digital media with their superior targeting skills and memes could be copied by Biden.

Another factor that could impact campaign ad spend is whether and when premium TV sporting events will return. Lieberman says, “With sporting events either canceled or postponed, there is a hunger for sport on television, as evidenced by reviews of the NFL Draft and ESPN’s The Last Dance. When the Major League Baseball season starts, the NBA season starts again, and the NFL starts, they will be ideal vehicles for political campaigning to rekindle awareness. ”

In any case, Michael Leszaga, Manager of Market Intelligence at MAGNA, when analyzing the data on election campaign advertising spending by the Federal Electoral Commission (FEC) points out that thanks to the billionaires Bloomberg and Steyer, political advertising spending in the 2020 cycle was already a record before the outbreak the COVID-19 pandemic.

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