For months, President Trump’s campaign boasted that its campaign operation was a “juggernaut” and compared it to the powerful Death Star. Nowhere was that more evident to the general public than on the television airwaves. According to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, from early May through July 28, 2020, the Trump campaign and Republican outside groups spent an estimated $80.1 million to air 161,744 ads on local broadcast, national network and national cable TV for the presidential general election. By contrast, Joe Biden’s campaign and Democratic outside groups spent an estimated $44.2 million and aired only 66,875 ads for the presidential general election during that period.
But as you can see in the chart below, the Republican Death Star stopped being fully armed and operational in late July — while Democrats began to step up their game. From July 29 through Sept. 14, Republican forces aired just 107,816 ads at an estimated cost of $71.5 million, while Democratic forces aired 183,341 ads for an estimated $107.1 million.
What happened in July? Trump appointed a new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who was tasked with fixing the campaign’s cash flow problems and sudden fundraising woes. For most of the year, Trump and the Republican National Committee had comfortably outraised Biden and the Democratic National Committee, but that advantage had evaporated by the end of July. And in August, Bidenworld outraised Trumpworld $365 million to $210 million.
Accordingly, Stepien has reportedly been working to tighten the campaign’s belt — which has included cutting back on TV ads in several key states. For example, from early May through Aug. 24, Republicans outaired Democrats 20,904 ads to 18,548 in Arizona-based media markets.1 But the Trump campaign went dark in the Grand Canyon State on Aug. 25, and after that Democrats outaired Republicans 8,922 ads to 3,226 in the state (all but two of the Republican ads were from outside groups).
It’s a similar story in Pennsylvania: From early May through July 29, Republicans aired 28,438 ads to Democrats’ 17,322. But from July 30 through Sept. 14, Democrats out-advertised Republicans 30,882 spots to 15,702 — in large part because the Trump campaign aired only two ads during those six weeks. That should be especially alarming to Republicans, since the FiveThirtyEight model believes that Pennsylvania is the likeliest state to decide the 2020 election.
The Trump campaign also didn’t air a single commercial in a Michigan-based media market from July 23 through Sept. 7. Although the campaign is now back on the air, Michiganders saw 38,261 pro-Biden ads from early May through Sept. 14 and only 15,866 pro-Trump ads.
Trump is still on the air in other crucial states, such as Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin — but even in those states, Democrats have been airing more ads than Republicans since late July. Here are the shifts in each major swing state — defined as the states with more than a 1 percent chance of being the Electoral College tipping point, per the FiveThirtyEight model.
Democrats are now airing more swing-state ads
How many ads each party aired for the presidential general election on broadcast TV in the states with the highest chance of deciding the 2020 election, from May 5 to July 28 vs. from July 29 to Sept. 14
In sum, these numbers look damning for Trump. And they are indeed another sign that Trump’s campaign may be in trouble, especially considering he is the incumbent and, as such, should have a larger war chest at his disposal. But it’s also important to remember that TV advertising isn’t the be-all and end-all for campaigns. In fact, political scientists disagree about whether TV ads even have a significant effect on elections at all! And the Trump campaign points to the fact that it is outspending Biden in other areas, such as field offices (Trump has opened more than 280, while Biden, due to the coronavirus pandemic, has opened none) and digital advertising (from Aug. 1 through Sept. 5, Trump spent $66.8 million on Facebook and Google ads while Biden spent $46.2 million). And of course, there are still seven weeks left in the campaign — plenty of time for Trump to return to dominance on the airwaves.