THE NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing on political advertising in the United States during an election year. This is part of our Elections 2020 series, and so thanks very much for joining today. If you haven’t done so already, please take the time now to rename yourself. Some people have a phone number there, and some people have a name not written in ABCs, so please take the time to rename yourself so when question time comes we can call on you.
My name is Stephanie Morimura. I’m with the New York Foreign Press Center, and I’m the moderator today. But before we begin, please keep your microphone muted, and when you’re called on later we will unmute you. If you have a technical problem during the session, please use the chat function, and we’ll try to help you out with that. And also just to remind you this is an on-the-record briefing.
And now let me introduce our briefers today. We’re very honored to have with us today two of the three co-directors from the Wesleyan Media Project, Dr. Michael Franz and Dr. Travis Ridout. The Wesleyan Media Project studies, tracks, and codes political ads in federal elections.
I’ll go in alphabetical order; there’s no meaning in the introduction order that I’m giving. First is Dr. Michael Franz. He is Professor of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College. His research interests include campaign finance, political advertising, and interest groups. He’s the author or co-author of four books, including “The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising,” and “Choices and Changes: Interest Groups in the Electoral Process.” He is coming to us from Maine today.
Our second speaker is Dr. Travis Ridout. He’s the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Policy and Director of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs at Washington State University. He’s published extensively on the – on political campaigns, political advertising, and campaign finance. Professor Ridout’s most recent book is the very aptly named, “Political Advertising in the United States.” And he is coming to us from Washington State.
Thanks very much for joining us. And let me remind everyone that the briefers’ opinions are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the U.S. Government. They’re going to provide their remarks, and they’ll have a brief PowerPoint, and following that we’ll do the questions and answers.
So let me hand it over to Professor Ridout. Take it away.
MR RIDOUT: All right. Thank you very much. And we have a little slide presentation today. Let’s go to the – actually, let’s go to the first slide, which is a map of the United States. And – but it doesn’t look like most maps of the United States. It’s divided into 210 geographic sections, and these are called media markets. And a media market is a geographic area that is served by broadcast television stations. And that’s important because that’s one of the ways in which campaigns buy political advertising. And so this map shows you the balance of Joe Biden and Donald Trump advertising in each of those 210 media markets from April through early September of this year. And so those dark red areas are showing you places where Donald Trump had a big advantage in terms of the number of ads. If you look in places like Georgia or Iowa, you see a lot of dark red. The dark blue is showing you those places where Joe Biden and those groups that support Joe Biden had a big advantage. So states like Michigan, Wisconsin. You can also see you have Biden advantage in Arizona. And of course, there are some media markets there where there was no advertising at all. Those are shown in the white. And that’s largely because those are not competitive states. So look, like, Louisiana. Hardly any advertising; it’s not competitive.
Now, the majority of ad spending is still done on broadcast television, but of course we’re also seeing growing spending on local cable television, which can be targeted even more closely than broadcast television. Of course, there’s spending on radio, and there’s also growing spending on digital advertising, on websites or social media.
So let’s go to the next slide now. And this slide shows you total ad airings and total spending on political ads in the United States since early 2019. And so there have been 4.7 million ad airings at a total cost of $2.3 billion on broadcast and national cable television. Now that’s not all in the presidential race. In fact, I’d picked out a variety of races just to show you how it’s distributed. So U.S. Senate races, $464 million in spending; $148 million in spending in U.S. House races. There’s even spending on ads for county sheriff races – $1.2 million in this current election cycle.
Now, of course, this is just showing you TV advertising. If you go to the next slide, we can focus in on digital advertising, that is, advertising that’s online or on social media sites. And this shows you just digital share or the percentage of total ad spending that is on these media. And so in 2010, it’s about 1 percent. By 2016 that reaches 14 percent, 20 percent in 2018. Early estimates are that digital spending will constitute about 27 percent of ad spending in this race.
And so I’ll turn it over to my colleague Michael Franz now to talk about the tone of that advertising.
MR FRANZ: Thanks, Travis.
One of the things that we spend a lot of time on at the Wesleyan Media Project is tracking not only the volume of spending across the country, as Travis laid out, but also what are in those ads and what messages campaigns and other outside groups put in those advertisements and what they’re saying to voters. And what that includes also is the tone of the campaign, how negative or positive is the campaign, and how has that changed over time.
Political scientists have typically operationalized a negative ad as an ad that focuses solely on the opposing candidate, on the assumption that you would never say something nice about your opponent. If the campaign is entirely about the opponent, we would call that an attack ad, or a negative ad. And an ad that’s only about yourself, we would define – or an ad that’s promotional of a candidate we would define as a positive ad. And an ad that’s about both campaigns we would define as a contrast ad. And so we have three categories of advertisements that we’ve tracked over time.
Now, we have some data from our Wesleyan Media Project, but there also is some older data. And we’ve kind of put that in one time series for us to look at here today. Using some studies of presidential campaign ads that political scientist John Geer wrote about in a book he published about 15 years ago, he counted up the number of ads that were made by presidential campaigns between 1960 and 1996. And he counted up the percentage of the ads that were made that were negative, as I defined, and also the number of statements in those ads that were negative as a share of all of the statements in the ads that he analyzed. And he looked at nearly 1,000 campaign ads across these 36 years. And one the things that he found was that negativity in presidential elections had been trending upward, whether as a share of all negative ads – or all ads I should say, or as a percentage of the mentions in those ads.
Well, the Wesleyan Project looks at political advertising and has been studying that to some degree for nearly 20 years. And we have data that counts up the number of ads that also aired on television, as Travis mentioned, so we can actually scale the negative advertising that we code by how many times they were on television. And many ads air many times. And we have that data on the righthand side here from about 2000 all the way up to 2018, and we’ve split that by whether they were presidential election ads or ads in House and Senate, or congressional, races.
And you can see that between 2000 and 2018, there has been an increase in negativity. There’s been some declines in 2016 and in 2018 relative to previous cycles, but the share or the percentage of ads that aired on television in these races, they’re much higher than they were when we started this work and much higher than when John Geer ended his analysis around 2000. And so there’s a lot of negativity on television, and this is all ads that aired on television.
But one thing that the decline in 2018 masks, sort of this last time series point here over on the far right, is that this is just a percentage of ads that aired, and we also should count up how many times these ads aired to show you volume. And one of the things that was really unique about 2018 is that the volume of airings was way, way up over it had been in previous cycles.
So on the left side here is – I definitely want you to think about the time series with respect to percentage of the ads that aired. And you can see in 2018 the percentage of attack ads was slightly lower than what it was in the previous cycles, around 40 percent. And then you can see the distribution of promotional and contrast ads.
But if you look on the right side, the right panel, when we look at that as volume total, you can see that negative advertising was higher than it was in previous years because there was much more volume in 2018 than there was in 2016, 2014, and 2012. And so even though negativity as a precent went down in 2018, there were on the air more negative ads than ever before.
Now in our early analysis of 2020, we’ve seen that the volume totals have gone up even more. So when we look at sort of the full election cycle from the beginning of 2019 all the way through the beginning of September of this year, we’re seeing that about 40 percent more ads are on TV relative to 2018 in congressional races. And so the congressional comparison shows an increase in 2020 over 2018. And 2018, as you can see here, was already a big jump over previous cycles. So digital has gone up but so has television, and so that’s one of the really interesting features of this current period we’re in. There’s more of everything.
Another common feature of campaign ads that we study is the sponsorship question, so not just what they were saying but who put what on TV and how often is – are different political actors airing television ads. One of the interesting features of American politics is the role that outside groups play, so not candidates and not traditional party organizations but what we might call super PACs or other types of groups that are officially unaffiliated with the campaigns directly but are airing advertisements on behalf of federal candidates.
These are data from all of the campaign advertisements that we’ve collected over the years that looks at – across all of the years and all of the coverage of data we have – what percentage of ads in each election cycle were sponsored by outside groups, so these non-party committees, non-candidates, unaffiliated with both but in support of federal candidates. And a big demarcation point was in the election of 2010 into 2012, when after the Supreme Court made a very sort of consequential ruling called Citizens United versus the FEC that scaled back many of the federal provisions that limited how outside groups could fund their spending. Outside groups mobilized aggressively, raising large funds to sponsor ads in federal races.
And so whereas between 2000 and 2008 somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of outside – or 5 and 10 percent of spending in federal races was from outside groups on television ads, that number has increased to about, well, a little below 30 percent since 2012, and it’s been a pretty consistent trend of nearly 30 percent of the ads are coming from outside groups.
In 2020, we have data through the beginning of September, and that share is around 22 percent, inclusive of the president race and all the congressional races. But we also know that outside groups tend to focus much more of their efforts in the fall campaign over the summer and early part of spring of the election year, and so we expect that the 22 percent share we see up through early September to rise up towards 30 or past 30, once the campaign is fully over, once Election Day passes. And this an enduring and really new component of American elections, which is the aggressive mobilized presence of outside groups.
And so if we were to put 2020 in some context – and then we’ll stop here and take your questions – we see that there are more ads. There was a certain claim for a number of years that TV ads would decline; they would become less important because people would be going all online and be streaming their content. But we’re seeing traditional broadcast of TV ads in those media markets that Travis started with are going up. There’s just more content than ever, both on TV and on digital.
Second, digital is hugely important these days. About $500 million alone has been spent by presidential candidates on Facebook and Google ads, not counting other digital messages that are out there. And that’s relative to about $1 billion spent by the campaigns on TV ads. So it’s getting closer; that ratio is getting closer between what digital and TV account for.
We are seeing more groups. There is a lot more groups out there active than ever. Their share of advertising is getting closer to about one in every three ads, but we see groups of many different forms – nonprofits, coalitions, unions, issue groups, many different legal forums. And those groups are planning a big role in a lot of what is being said in campaigns on TV and on digital.
And in this particular cycle, we’re seeing that the COVID-19 issue, as you might expect, looms large. It’s a top issue in lots of campaigns, and it will continue to be a top issue. And this is something where I’m going to produce some data on later this week, so we’re crunching numbers right now that will show the amount of attention that COVID-19 is playing in the presidential election and in lower ballot races.
But from what we’ve seen so far, it’s a big issue. It’s an important issue especially to Democrats in their attempts to win back the Senate and take the White House.
So we’ll stop there and happy to take questions. Many thanks for the chance to speak with you all today, and I look forward to hearing the questions that you have.
MODERATOR: Thank you both so much. Great, interesting presentation. Before we go to questions from the field, I’d like to remind everybody to click the “Raise Hand” button on the bottom of the participant list stream, and then I’ll call on you when you have a question. And I will call on that, as I said. And if you haven’t already changed your name to a complete name and your outlet, please change that. When you ask your question, may I also ask that you state your name and your outlet again as a courtesy to our speakers?
Before we get to questions from the listeners, I wanted to pose a question that came in on our RSVP form. We got a few questions there. So why don’t we kick off with that?
One question was: How have the changes in media use shifted the landscape for political ads in 2020? You touched on this a little bit, but I wonder if you could go into a little bit more depth on what’s unique about 2020 and the ways that people are using media.
MR RIDOUT: Yeah, I’ll jump in on that one. One big shift that we’ve seen over time that has certainly accelerated in 2020 is that young people are not watching television. They’re certainly not watching broadcast television. Everything is online or streaming.
And so if campaigns want to talk to younger people, then they can’t just rely upon advertising on broadcast television, and so that’s why you’ve seen some of those big increases in digital advertising that I talked about. That’s where you have to reach the young people.
Now, they’re not certain how much those ads actually work. It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of those ads. But certainly that’s where they’re putting a lot of effort in 2020.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I see we have a question from Simon Ateba.
MODERATOR: No? Okay. So again, if you have a question, please raise your hand in the participant box. Simon? Yes, Simon. Yes, thank you.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. This is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. I just saw the numbers that you gave here, like $500 million on digital ad for Facebook and Google. My question is: How much of that money ends up in the media, in media houses? Because it seems like the money still goes back to the big guys, and the journalists and the media don’t really make anything. How much of it really goes to the journalists or to media houses?
And if I may add the final question, with all the deaths in COVID-19, do we – do advertising – does it really have an impact when people are dying and you have like 200,000 people who have died and they are stuck in their houses? Thank you.
MR FRANZ: Sure, I’ll try to answer both those questions.
On the second one, I think that the impact issue is a really good question. I mean, we’ve tried to measure for many years the role that – the impact about – of political advertising on voters’ decisions, whether they can really influence whether voters vote for a candidate or not. And the conventional wisdom is that campaign ads do matter – they do matter in influencing how people vote and the opinions they have of candidates – but they don’t matter by a lot, and the effects don’t matter for all that long.
And so if you were to advertise a lot in, say, early September, you might see some poll numbers that would move up. You might start to be doing better in the election. But if you were to stop that advertising and do nothing for a few weeks, your poll numbers would probably trend back down to where they were before. And so people tend to forget the ads that they saw or not really remember the messages that you – the appeals you made. And so that’s a lot of the reason why you see campaigns continually advertising, which is to get the boost from advertisements and then to keep that boost kind of going.
That’s what we know about TV ads. We know less about the effect of digital advertising on candidate assessments and how people feel about campaigns.
In this cycle, with people stuck at home and with people paying maybe a little bit more attention to screens than they might normally do, maybe we would expect to see some of the effect of these ads to increase a little bit, but it’s – that’s something that we’ll assess after the campaign is over. But that would be a – I think a clear hypothesis that we might see a slightly larger effect this time around.
With respect to the question of where the money goes for Facebook and Google, I don’t think really any of it goes to the media houses themselves. I think what ends up happening is it makes Google and Facebook a little richer as social media platforms. And they probably don’t make a ton of money off political advertising relative to their other forms of ads that they sell, but none of that really trickles back down, as far as we know, to other outlets.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Next I’d like to go to Sriram Lakshman.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for your comments. My first question is with regard to platforms for digital advertising, are you seeing – Twitter, for example, has some more stringent guidelines on fact checking than, say, Facebook. Are you seeing that impact advertising spent by political parties? That’s the first question.
The second question is when you watch TV, you notice there are media bubbles, and it’s like there are two separate realities. Are you seeing – in terms of – is there a way to proxy that in advertising? Is one party trying to reach out more to people who are in the other bubble than the other party? Are there – do you have tools to measure that?
MR RIDOUT: Yeah, I’ll take those questions. With regard to the platforms, you’ve mentioned Twitter specifically. There’s not much advertising on Twitter. I think part of that has to do with just the format. It’s more difficult to do video on Twitter. Part of that is the audience. There is an assumption among campaigns that people who are on Twitter are very politically engaged, and thus they aren’t really persuadable individuals; they already know whom they’re going to vote for. And so you’re in some sense wasting your money in trying to advertise on Twitter, whereas people on Facebook run the gamut between people who are really politically engaged, independent voters, Republicans, Democrats, people who don’t vote often. So there is a lot greater persuadable audience there.
You asked about a media bubble and do we see two separate realities in advertising. And I would say yes and no. On TV the advertising is often aimed for a very general audience, those people who might be in the middle, who are persuadable. They – the campaigns might be talking about bread and butter issues that everyone cares about – the economy, for instance.
But on digital you tend to see much more targeting towards specific audiences, towards partisan audiences, and thus the appeals that the campaigns are using in those digital ads tend to be much more polarizing, tend to be much more partisan than what you see on TV.
And so I think the answer to your question is it really depends upon what type of advertising we’re talking about.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much. Next I’d like to go to Nikhila Natarajan.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m not able to unmute my video for some reason. Maybe it’s been locked, but no problem. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: We can hear you and we can see your picture.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Travis, Michael, thanks for that.
A couple of things: The first question that Stephanie posed was – actually, I had sent that in about how changes in media use have affected how advertising has shifted. So a follow-up: What are you seeing on programmatic and if you have any data on that? How much of this money is going to programmatic ads?
And also, what is the role of building habit? Although it’s a small and intense election season, like you said about TV, TV is effective, and digitally you’re not able to really tell, but isn’t that a paradox in the sense that digital allows you to measure pretty well? So what are we not able to measure? Do you want to just shine a light on that? I’m curious.
MR FRANZ: Yeah, thank you so much. Could you tell me what you mean by programmatic ads just so I can focus specifically on your question?
QUESTION: So how much of this – when you say digital ads, there’s a variety, right? There’s a large spectrum. It could go to, say, Google AdWords, it could go to – just programmatic, which means let’s say I open up a newspaper – let’s say my preferred newspaper site – and the DSP knows that this person has these kind of tendencies politically, and then I’m shown an ad of a Trump or a Biden whatever – that kind of programmatic. How much is going into Google AdWords? How much is going into programmatic? How much is going into targeting on Facebook, for instance? Do we have that granular division or maybe not? I mean, maybe I’m asking for too much.
MR FRANZ: No, no. So that’s great, though. Thank you. So no, we – so it’s a bit of a challenge because we have access to the data that Google and Facebook make available, and Facebook has now a publicly searchable live archive of ads that have aired on that platform since May of 2018. Google did the same, and this was in the aftermath of the 2016 controversy over Russian Facebook advertisements. The two platforms got in sort of front of congressional action to make some data available. And so we have decent data on the volume and how much is being spent by different entities, and we can get the ads themselves and look at the ads and see what’s in the ads.
What we don’t have really great information on is the targeting that happens with those ads. There’s some limits on what they make available for us. In Facebook advertisements, for example, we can see sort of very big categories of the profile of those who saw the ad – women under the age of 40, men over the age of 65 – we can see some geographic distributions. We don’t necessarily know much about how those were targeted to specific profiles of voters, whether those were targeted to specific lists, whether those were targeted to specific categories of voters.
Same thing with Google. We don’t have great distinctions on whether the ads are search-related ads or whether they’re ads coming from YouTube. And so there are limits on what Google and Facebook have allowed us to say about the targeting capacities and the targeting of campaigns.
What we generally know about campaigns is that they’re trying to get more sophisticated, but they’re probably not as sophisticated as commercial advertisers in the sense that they slice and dice voter files all the time to figure out the profile of candidates – profile of voters that they want to reach – but they probably, especially as you go down ballot to, say, U.S. House races, don’t have the personnel power to really send digital advertising to slices of the electorate that match some pre-defined sort of targeting strategy. And so you might see very broadly targeted or very sort of bluntly targeted digital advertisements to – on Facebook side, people that they – Facebook thinks are Democrats or Republicans, and that might be it within the district that you’re running.
On the measurement side, I mean, you raise an interesting question about the paradox, and in a sense we’re overstating what we can’t measure. As political scientists we want to measure whether the ads have effects on things like the outcome of the election, how interested people are in campaigns, whether they turn out to vote, how much they know about the candidates – all the stuff that generally is really important to political scientists that we can’t measure very easily because we’re not in charge of the distribution of the digital ads and we only have access to the kind of data that I just told you. And so it’s – there’s limits on what we can say about impacts.
But the campaign side gets all sorts of metrics and Facebook will tell them how many people clicked on this ad or that ad with some data on the profile of those who clicked through, and also the messages that are sent on digital might be really about raising money. And the campaign can measure that very directly by saying if Campaign Ad X was sent out and Campaign Ad Y was sent out on a different timeframe, we raised more money when this ad went out versus when that ad went out, this one was clicked on more than that one. They have some metrics that we don’t have that allow them to be pretty good at measuring impact on that side of things.
That’s less of what we’re interested in because we want to know impact on Election Day and so forth, and that’s harder to measure. But there are some things that advertisers on these platforms can measure very precisely, and that can help them figure out what kinds of messages are likely to resonate.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Alexey Bogdanovskiy.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Thank you. My question is: Why do you think President Trump has lost his advantage in fundraising, and secondly, the money he can spend on political advertising? There were reports that the Republicans in many local television and internet markets are being squeezed out because they don’t have the money in order to compete with Biden, and there were even rumors that Mr. Trump would resort to spending his own money on advertising. Thank you.
MR RIDOUT: Right, yeah. I mean, the Trump campaign has raised a lot of money this year. It’s hard to know how much money they spent in order to raise that money, right? They’ve been very effective at – for the past several years they’ve been putting ads out on Facebook, for instance, to try to gather people’s names whom they hit up for money, but they may only make a few cents for every dollar spent in that type of strategy. And so it seems like they’ve been spending a lot of money.
And at the more local level, I think we have seen in recent weeks Joe Biden’s campaign have a pretty big advantage over the Trump campaign in terms of spending, especially on television spending. And that could reflect just a lack of money from the Trump campaign or it could reflect a different strategy. The Trump campaign has been spending more in digital ads than the Biden campaign on – the positive spin on that for the Trump campaign is that they’re really targeting specific voter groups and come Election Day those groups are going to come with them. The negative spin is they’re sending out a bunch of fundraising messages because they desperately need money to pay for TV ads. So I’m not sure at this point; we’ll see.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much. Pearl Matibe, you have a question?
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much. Some very interesting information shared so I very much appreciate that, Michael and Travis. Thank you. My question is: Are you seeing any advertising spend being planned for or being directed towards countering foreign interference, as we know what happened with the 2016 elections? And in the key states including Florida, what gaps in programming or advertising spend are you seeing on the Democratic side and on the Republican side that might ensure whoever is going to win? Thanks very much.
MR FRANZ: Well, thank you for that question. I would say – I might ask a follow-up, if you could just expand by what you mean on the Florida question, just for —
QUESTION: Okay, excellent – excellent question. I’m quite happy to expand on that. So we all know that Bloomberg is dedicating about $100 million or so, according to reports, in Florida. My take or my guess is that the Democrats certainly need to do a whole lot more work in Florida, but that takes a whole lot of money. Of course there’s operational stuff in terms of growing the campaign itself that that Bloomberg money is going to be targeted towards, but I’m wondering how much of what Bloomberg is going to throw into Florida is going to go towards advertising or if there are any other players or stakeholders that you know of that might be directing and financing in that direction.
And so I’m interested in that gap because Florida is going to be such a key state – whoever’s going to be president will have to win Florida. Of course there’s about another five, six, seven other key states right now that are really going to make this election, and I’m wondering what’s happening in terms of advertising in those states. Thanks. So Pennsylvania, for instance, is one. Wisconsin is another. But there are a few others.
MR FRANZ: Thank you. Yes, so for – for sure. The graph that Travis showed at the beginning which was the inclusive sort of media market coverage from April 9th, which is the general consensus of when the general election began – that was after Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race – through September 4th did show lots of places that were red in the sense that Trump had more ads on TV than Biden, inclusive of that broader time period. But in the more recent period, if we were to reproduce that graph from say August through September, sort of in a much more recent sort of time frame, most of those places are blue or more blue than they are in the big time period. Trump spent a ton of money on TV ads in May and early June and then really tailed off from there and has been being outspent my Biden in most places. So in the battleground states, in states like – even in Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, we’re seeing Biden either closing the gap or outspending heavily Donald Trump.
Now, that’s inclusive of outside groups that are supporting both sides and Joe Biden seems to be getting a little bit wider support from outside groups than Donald Trump. Trump has a super PAC that’s supportive of him, America First Priorities, and Biden has help from a number of outside groups, including the big Democratic super PAC Priorities USA and other supportive outside groups. And so it does seem like across the country, not just in Florida, Biden has really taken over the volume side, if you will.
That will be aided perhaps by Bloomberg’s efforts. We haven’t seen anything in our data yet with Bloomberg’s – anything that Bloomberg will spend. He was obviously a huge spender in the presidential primary. He spent more money in the primary when he was a candidate than any other candidate I think ever who ran for office, and he was only a candidate for three months. And he promised that he would be spending money in the general election to aid the Democratic nominee and we haven’t seen that on TV yet, and so we have seen reports that there’ll be more money spent by him in the fall campaign, and we’ll be tracking that if we do see it.
And that would, I mean, massively help Biden relative to where Trump is, given the earlier question about his fundraising issues. If the poll numbers continue to suggest that Biden has the advantage, there isn’t going to be much mobilization that happens from outside groups to help Trump, I think, because that money might want to go towards Senate races so that they keep the Senate. Because if they lose the Senate and they lose the White House, then they’ve – that’s a big, big problem for Republicans. And so the failsafe for them perhaps is to move all of that money into the competitive Senate races, try to hold the wall there, and these – the outside groups, I would imagine, might make that calculation and Trump would be left to himself and to the Republican Party committee and whatever funds they have. So Bloomberg’s efforts could be really determinative in places like Florida.
What we haven’t been seeing much of, to your first question, is about the foreign interference issue. I have to defer maybe to later in the week when we do some of the analysis on the ads’ messages. We just finished coding the ads up through September 13th and we’re going to do some analysis of the issues that are mentioned in those ads. But the early work we were doing on messages in the summer didn’t find much of a mention of that issue as an important campaign strategy for the Democrats. I think the Democrats are focusing like they have in 2018 on the issues of, like, health care, public health as it relates to COVID.
Trump is trying to avoid COVID entirely and focus on law and order issues and protests in American cities, and that’s really become the fault line of the campaign. And you would think that electoral integrity and Trump’s lack of effort in trying to counter future interference from outside foreign governments would be a major issue for Democrats, but that really hasn’t been something that’s played well for them relative to the bread and butter issue of, say, like, health care and public health, and that seems to matter a tremendous amount to voters and worked well for them in 2018 and is probably going to be the focus for them this time around too.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much. And I think Deepak Kumar has a question.
QUESTION: Thank you, Stephanie. Deepak Arora from The Tribune online from New Delhi, India, and I’m in India right now because the flights between the two countries – scheduled flights have ended since March. Okay, so I have two questions, if I may ask: In the U.S. both the Republicans and Democrats I think must – both must be smart enough to know how successful digital campaigns can be. So I wonder how do they balance this impact or how is this – is it balanced? Or how does —
MODERATOR: You were cutting out there a little bit. Could you repeat that, please?
MODERATOR: We may have lost —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) smart enough —
MODERATOR: Oh, here we go. Excuse me, Mr. Arora, could you repeat that? We lost your audio.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) okay. And you may give the question to —
MODERATOR: We lost the audio, so could you repeat that briefly?
QUESTION: I said both Republicans and Democrats are smart enough – their teams must be smart enough to know how digital campaigns are run. So how do they balance this out or is it balanced out towards the end?
MODERATOR: Okay, I think – did you get that question, Travis or Michael?
MR RIDOUT: Yeah, I didn’t – I didn’t really understand the question and I think he may have been cut off again.
MODERATOR: Yeah. We’ll give it one more try. Deepak, can you hear me?
QUESTION: No, ask somebody – no, no, ask somebody – (inaudible) write in my question.
MODERATOR: Oh, you’ll write it in chat? Okay, fine.
MODERATOR: Are the – yes. While he’s writing that in the chat, I was wondering sort of the —
QUESTION: Get to somebody else – yes. Somebody else may ask a question, then.
MODERATOR: Yes, thank you. Just kind of in conclusion, today is exactly seven weeks from the election, and it’s also two weeks from the first presidential debate, so I’m just wondering if you both could give some tips on how to view advertising from now till the end, or what are some points to look out for as we get closer and closer to the actual election date?
MR RIDOUT: Oh gosh, good question. I think, one, as you’re watching those ads, really focus on the issues that they’re talking about. That’s – and the issues provide an insight into how someone would govern as well. These – we tend to think that ads are all lies. Actually, ads can be quite revealing about what a president or a candidate will focus on if elected, and so the fact that Democrats and Republicans, Biden and Trump, are talking about different things, I think, is quite revealing as to how they would govern if elected. So that’s one point I’ll make.
Mike, do you want to jump in with others?
MR FRANZ: Yeah, the other thing I would say is kind of in line with what I mentioned before, which is I think we could – we should watch to see how often some of these down-ballot candidates for the Republicans run away from or fail to mention Donald Trump.
And so I’m thinking myself about the state of Maine, where I am, and we have a very competitive Senate race which will be important to whether or not Democrats can pick up that seat and can pick up the control of the United States Senate. And in this state, the incumbent Republican is in a tricky spot about whether she should – not embrace Donald Trump, but repudiate him or try to stand independent from his first four years. And so to the extent that that becomes the narrative for Republicans in other close Senate races is a good, I think, harbinger of how bad the Trump campaign can expect to get on Election Night, how much in trouble they are. And that could come from internal polling, it could come from polling that we’ll all see as citizens that show the race tending towards Biden.
On the other hand, if the polls tighten, then those campaigns are not going to be in a position to run away from Trump but may in fact try to ride whatever wave he’s got if it’s working out that way. So I think a key indicator is – in these campaign ads is what they’re saying, if anything, about Donald Trump, because he is in fact a huge feature of many of these down-ballot campaigns.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much. I now can see Deepak’s question, and his question essentially is: Both campaigns, Republicans and Democrats, are pretty savvy about digital advertising, but is there one or the other that knows how to handle it more effectively?
MR RIDOUT: Yeah, yeah, good question. In the past in certain elections, we’ve thought, well, the Democrats had an advantage in this year and the Republicans had an advantage this year. In 2016, the Republicans emphasized digital media more than Democrats did in the presidential race, at least. I’m not sure if the – if our – if the history is yet written on 2020. It seems like, as you say, both candidates, they’re recognizing the importance of digital. Trump is placing more emphasis on that. Not sure if that will reveal an Election Day surprise when he does better than expected as in 2016, or if it’s really just desperate pleas for money that he needs to run TV ads.
MR FRANZ: I’ll just add one thing about that too, which is that oftentimes the postmortems on these strategies depend in part on whether you won or lost. So Donald Trump didn’t spend a lot of money on TV ads in 2016, and if he had lost, many people might have said he missed a huge opportunity with all his wealth to balance out the advertising from Hillary Clinton on television and reach older voters. But instead he won, and so he was considered a sort of brilliant tactician who spent more money on digital.
Now on the other hand, Hillary Clinton didn’t do a lot of polling and spent a lot of money on data analytics, and if she had won, people may have said brilliant strategy investing in cutting-edge technologies to figure out what voters want, but she lost and so the postmortem said that she missed a huge opportunity to poll in traditional ways in states like Wisconsin and in Michigan. And so the analysis really will hinge on who wins and who loses, and then oftentimes the way we write that history is to praise the winners and criticize the losers. That’s not always an accurate reflection of how balanced these campaigns are across different technologies.
MODERATOR: Thank you, and then one follow-up from Deepak and then we’re going to have to end the session. It’s, as all things are in 2020, COVID-19-related: “What’s the impact on digital advertising because of COVID? Is there some impact there? You mentioned that in your original slides as an important thing, factor this year, so what about that as it relates to digital advertising?”
MR RIDOUT: Right. We don’t have definitive answers here, but we have speculated that some of the spike in spending that we’ve seen because of advertising is related to COVID in the sense that there aren’t that many other things that campaigns can spend their money on. It’s difficult for campaigns to put on the big rallies where they bring together tens of thousands of supporters, right? You can’t really spend your money on that, although the campaigns are trying to put together maybe some very small events. Biden is traveling a little bit now.
And so in some sense, I think political advertising both online and on television have benefited because they just can’t find other things to spend their money on. And there are a lot of voters who are stuck at home this year. They can’t go out to the bars at night, so they’re at home watching TV. It’s a good way to reach them with political advertising.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for your time today, really appreciate it. For our journalists who joined, thank you for joining and for your interest in our Foreign Press Center briefings. We’ll be sending the transcript to you as soon as it’s available, and if you have other follow-up questions, please feel free to reach out and we’ll pass them along to our briefers today. Thank you so much and have a good rest of the day.
MR FRANZ: Thank you, everybody.