Even with its ongoing cash crunch, Team Trump’s TV ad buys make zero sense

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The Trump campaign’s profligate spending over the summer is forcing it to make some painful decisions about which states to devote advertising resources to, and some of those decisions are frankly head-scratchers.

But here are the baseline numbers: the Biden campaign outspent the Trump camp in TV advertising by more than $75 million between Aug. 10 and Sept. 7, $97.7 million to $21.6 million, according to Bloomberg News.

  • FL: Biden $23.2 million, Trump $6.4 million
  • PA: Biden $16.8 million, Trump $0
  • NC: Biden $11.5 million, Trump $3.7 million
  • AZ: Biden $10 million, Trump $1.4 million
  • WI: Biden $9.2 million, Trump $1.5 million
  • MI: $8.5 million, Trump $0

During that period, the Trump campaign also spent double what Biden did in Georgia, $2.7 million to $1.3 million, the only battleground state where Trump outspent Biden—also a state no one originally expected would be on the map.

But the battleground disparities for Team Trump are arguably even worse since Labor Day, with the campaign logging zero local ads from September 8-14 in Arizona, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and instead directing its limited funds to Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, according to Medium Buying, a group that monitors advertising buys.

The most eye-popping part of that broadcast map is why Team Trump would be advertising in Minnesota (10 electoral votes) while leaving Pennsylvania and Arizona uncontested, both of which have more electoral votes (20 and 11, respectively). Trump didn’t win Minnesota in 2016 and he doesn’t necessarily need its 10 electoral votes if he hangs on to other key states that he both won in ’16 and appear much more competitive now, according to the Real Clear Politics polling averages.

In the last week, three separate polls have all found Biden to be up by 9 points in Minnesota—SurveyUSA, New York Times/Siena, and the CBS/YouGov tracker poll. Any way you look at the map, it makes no sense to fight for Minnesota while going dark in Arizona and Pennsylvania, unless you assume Trump has them entirely tied up—and nothing in the polling suggests that. He’s definitely trailing in all three states.

So even given the fact that Trump’s campaign appears to be broke, the allocation of resources is strange, particularly after Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said their ad plan would prioritize states with a sizable number of early and absentee votes. In 2016, 75% of Arizona’s ballots were cast before Election Day—the most of any state that doesn’t have automatic mail-in voting, according to Bloomberg News.

While TV advertising certainly isn’t the most important piece of a winning campaign, it is arguably a necessary part of the equation for the Biden campaign in light of the fact that Trump is constantly flooding the news coverage zone. Trump manages to suck up the vast majority of media coverage through both his unhinged stem-winders and bombshell revelations like the fact that deliberately misled the American people about how deadly the coronavirus is.

So one of the few ways for Biden to break through, particularly with positive messaging about himself and his biography, is through advertising. Polling has shown that Biden’s favorability rating improved coming out of the convention while Trump’s remains deeply underwater—that’s an advantage that the Biden campaign would like to maintain heading into Election Day, among other goals.

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