As we all know, the past year was actually three years stuffed into one, so it’s sometimes hard to remember that it was only about a year ago that the first votes were cast in the Iowa Democratic Primary. At that time, the eventual nominee was still putting together his advertising campaign. The field in early 2020 was extremely crowded. It included two billionaires, a 39 year old mayor, a Democratic Socialist from Vermont, nearly every Democratic Senator with any sort of national profile, and somewhere in the mix was Joe Biden. Looking back, his ascendancy seemed anything but inevitable and fraught with challenges. So today, we’re looking at the advertising campaign that helped elect him President of the United States.
Advertising Campaign: Messaging
One of the strongest elements of the Biden campaign was a consistent message. From the beginning, he campaigned on “restoring the soul” of America. His first campaign video focused on Trump and Charlottesville and during most of the primary, his ads were focused on uniting against Trump, healthcare and the ACA, or character… and his time with Obama. Below is an example of one of the first ads Biden aired that focused on Trump and contrasted his character to Biden’s
During much of the primary campaign, and especially after he finished fourth in Iowa, Biden’s fundraising numbers were less than ideal. A lot of the small dollar donors were giving to people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and big donors were split among quite a few moderates, meaning Biden’s advertising campaign needed to be adjusted. He barely made a blip on the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire. It really was not until just before the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday that he began to invest in TV advertising going from $1M placed the week of February 19, to $6M the week of February 26, culminating with $9M the week of March 4th.
To say a year ago that Biden, and not Bloomberg, was on track to become the all-time highest spending candidate in a single race would have seemed crazy. (Bloomberg does deserve an honorable mention for a close second. together they spent over $1.2B on advertising, and that’s not including Bloomberg’s PAC spending.)
During the primary, the biggest spenders were Bloomberg, Steyer, and Sanders in that order, no questions asked, but in the general, it was Biden, no questions asked. He nearly doubled Trump’s spending, spent more than all of the PACs on the democratic side combined, and surpassed Obama, Clinton, and Bloomberg to become the highest spending candidate during a single race. His message pivoted during the General and became more focused on the challenges of the pandemic. But the Biden campaign remained consistent in tying their advertisements back to Biden’s character, strengthening Obamacare, and defeating Trump.
In the final weeks of the race, while the Trump campaign was cutting money in markets such as Tampa, Orlando, and Phoenix in order to focus on places like Philadelphia and Detroit, the Biden campaign was placing money everywhere. They were ultra-focused on what they saw as their path to 270, but as can be seen in the graphic below, they had the money to kind of do what they wanted; whereas Trump had to rely on buys with the RNC to even try to compete with Biden’s air cover. With $3.1B spent on the race for the White House, it’s no wonder the winning candidate had to become the highest spending candidate of all time.