A few weeks ago, we looked at the first wave of political advertising focused on COVID-19. Since then the crisis has only intensified, and the political universe has responded. During the last month, nearly 50% of all political ads have featured some reference to Coronavirus, monopolizing the subject of political ads from the presidential campaign down to local mayoral campaigns. You yourself may not have seen any political ads of any kind over the last month, however. While COVID has hit in what is generally a relative lull in the election cycle, between primaries and general elections, it has still had a remarkable effect in driving down the number of ads airing per week. Since March 17th we have seen an average of 23k total political ad airings/week. This is the lowest number of weekly ads since August 2019. Of these ads the majority have run in presidential battleground states, with outside groups Priorities USA, American Bridge, and America First taking up the most airtime.
As the above graph shows, it took several weeks for political advertisers to turn their focus to COVID, but over the last month the share of ads mentioning COVID has remained steady. Cumulatively we have seen 202k political ad airings since 3/10, of which 52k have referenced COVID. Interestingly, though the share of COVID ads peaked the week of 4/14, the number of ads has increased about 10% in the two subsequent weeks, indicating that there has been an uptick in non-COVID related ads since then.
Priorities USA has aired the most ads mentioning COVID, more than 8,000 individual airings since 3/24. Their most aired ad over that time frame, “Hoax” has aired over 2,700 times across Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan. America First has aired ads more than 4,000 times nationwide, the most aired of which is “Bad Folks.” Kentucky has been the main Senate battleground for COVID ads. Both McGrath and McConnell have aired more than 3,000 political ads mentioning COVID. McConnell’s most aired ad “Urgent Help” touts his economic response to the crisis, while McGrath’s response ad, “Powerful” criticizes him for taking a “victory lap.”
Evident above, the markets seeing political activity related to COVID are quite localized. We have high levels of presidential advertising in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and major senate races in Maine, Kentucky, and Montana. Most of the country has not yet been exposed to these ads. It will be worth watching if COVID becomes the defining topic of the general election. If it does, we will likely see incumbents defending their records, and challengers using pandemic response as a major line of attack. However, the political world spins quickly, only a few months ago it was hard to imagine that impeachment would not be one of the major topics of the general election.
COVID will likely continue to dominate the political landscape for the foreseeable future. One of the factors we are on the lookout for is whether we see messaging demanding governments open and lift restrictions. We have not yet seen messaging of this nature, but it seems increasingly likely that it will begin eventually. We will continue to track developments as this looks to be the defining issue of the 2020 election.