With the Democratic field beginning to winnow down to the serious contenders, primary season is finally entering full swing. While it is still early, this campaign media analysis compares how the 2016 presidential primary looked at this stage in 2015 to identify some indicators of how the race is moving. One point immediately stands out: Spending is pacing ahead of where it was in the 2016 election and the geographic spread of spending is different.

Primary Spending in 2016 vs. 2020

Compared to the first eight months of 2015, 2019 has seen more presidential money every month than the corresponding month in 2015. After a slow beginning, spending in both years increased rapidly over the summer. In 2019, spending has doubled each month since June. This led to the biggest monthly spending difference in August, with August of 2019 seeing $8M more in spending than August of 2015. It is worth noting that a great deal of this difference is attributable to Tom Steyer, who has spent $19.3M since he entered the race - almost half of all spending for the field.

Campaign Media Analysis for the 2020 Democratic Primary

Another interesting detail is a difference in focus on early primary states. At this point in 2015, campaign media analysis shows that New Hampshire had seen 52% of primary spending, but has only seen 21% so far this cycle. Iowa is the state of focus in this year’s Democratic primary, receiving 39% of spending compared to 26% in 2015. South Carolina and Nevada have also seen more activity this year at 18% and 11% respectively, while they had seen almost nothing at this point in the 2016 election  Though nearly all of this money has been spent by Tom Steyer, it demonstrates that Democrats  are increasingly focused on  states more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire.

One of the most dramatic differences is the spending that has come from PACs vs. candidates. At this point in 2015, 82% of spending had come from PACs, whereas in 2019, 93% of spending has come directly from campaigns. Spending via the campaign comes with some advantages, namely allowing advertisers to receive better rates. Because candidates are guaranteed the lowest rates, spending through the campaign rather than a PAC should allowing campaigns to air more ads for the same amount of dollars.

A final measure of this race is the relative lack of animosity on the airwaves. Though the debates have been contentious at times, so far candidates have either aired positive spots or aimed their ire at the President. While Castro and Harris, amongst others, have lobbed strong attacks at Joe Biden on stage and in the press, their ads have not yet ventured into offensive territory. This begs the question of when candidates will engage in an effort to knock Biden and Warren down a peg. These two are slowly starting to solidify their status as strong frontrunners, while the rest of the candidates jockey in the polls below them. As the race wears on, pressure will mount and force other candidates to attack Biden and Warren.

One exception to this positivity is the ad from Shirley Shawe. This ad, airing on broadcast in Boston and on cable in Iowa and Delaware, was sponsored by an individual citizen. The ad re-litigates an obscure Delaware Chancery court decision that was the genesis of a contentious exchange in the Senate between Senator Biden and Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard professor. But it is a notable exception because it was not produced by one of the competing campaigns.

So far, campaign media analysis shows that the Democratic primary has been largely defined by smaller advertisers spending big with the goal of qualifying for the next debate. Gillibrand spent early, didn’t receive the necessary polling, and dropped out while Steyer has spent heavily and been rewarded with a spot in the next debate. The challenge of making this year’s debates has incentivized early ad spending, perhaps explaining why spending is pacing so far ahead of 2015 this early on. As primary dates draw closer, we can likely expect candidates to turn their fire on one another as the goal switches from another qualifying poll to winning elections.

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