Messaging Costs in Democratic House Seats


If the story in the House during 2018 was the number of suburban seats that flipped, then the story of 2020 looks to be the 30-odd seats won by President Trump in 2016, but still held by Democratic incumbents. In order to reclaim control of the House next year, the GOP needs to flip 19 seats. The House rarely ever flips control in consecutive elections, but with President Trump back at the top of the ballot, the GOP will likely look to use his reputation to help regain control of the House. During the approach to 2020, both parties will be working to discern what the political battlefield looks like, and decide which districts to attack based on the price of running ads across such a broad playing field.

House District Rate Analysis

These 32 districts – won by Trump but held by Democrats – are some of the most competitive in the nation. NY-18 is the only one that rates as “Safe Democrat.” Another seven rate as “Likely Democrat,” including PA-07 and PA-17, two seats that have been redistricted since 2016. Seven more are rated as “Lean Democrat.” MN-07 is probably the most intriguing of these as a district that has continually elected Collin Peterson (D) despite being won by a Republican in the last five Presidential elections, including President Trump by 30 points in 2016. The remaining 17 districts make up the entirety of the “Democrat Toss-Up” category. These include the shock flips of the 2018 cycle: SC-01, OK-05, NY-11, and ancestrally Republican areas in Southern Virginia (VA-07 and VA-02) and Upstate New York (NY-19 and NY-22). It would take a clean sweep of this category, plus a few wins in the lean and likely categories, for the GOP reclaim the House. However, as we saw in 2018, these districts often break together one way or another.

Knowing which districts to target is important, but without the resources to deliver, candidate messaging can get lost in the noise. The media world is changing rapidly as digital moves to the forefront of advertising, but good old broadcast television remains the best way to move numbers. Broadcast TV is generally measured in Gross rating points (GRPs) which are an estimate of how much of a target audience has seen an ad. GRPs take into account the number of people who have seen an ad, and how many times each person has watched it. 100 GRPs indicates that everyone in a target audience has seen an ad one time (100% of the population x 1 time seeing the ad). In general, 1,000 GRPs means the whole population has seen it 10 times. 1,000 GRPs is considered the “saturation point” for a political message; it is commonly the goal is to run 1,000 GRPs in one week for one message, and then switch to new creative for the next week. Based on the average Cost per Point (CPP) for a market, we can calculate how expensive it would be to run one message in each congressional district.

Cost for One Message

For these 32 districts, it would cost a combined $33M for an outside group to run one message in each one of these districts. This is a fairly prohibitive cost. However, if we limit targets to the 24 Toss Up and Lean D districts, it would cost a considerably smaller $14M sum for one message in each of these 24. One thing to note is that outside groups (Super PACs and Party IE committees) pay roughly twice the rate that candidates do, so it is considerably more efficient to have the candidate raise money and air ads than to have outside groups carry the slack.

Money is not the only factor in elections, but it is a necessity. Without the ability to air ads wherever necessary and to hit a target audience a candidate or party will simply be unable to disseminate their message to voters. The race will be on for each party to raise the necessary funds in order to capture their target seats and either reclaim or retain hold of the House.

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