With the political world’s attention focused on the first Democratic debates, candidates and interested parties capitalized on the opportunity to get their message in front of voters via paid media. We saw a variety of the lower-polling democrats seize this moment, but as usual the real story lies with President Trump. Google has not yet released spending disclosures for last week, but it has been widely reported that the Trump campaign bought the Youtube masthead, some of the most highly visible advertising space available. This ad space runs for about $1M for 24 hours of advertising. Not only is this a powerful financial flex from Trump’s campaign, but it also doubles as an earned media play.
Trump, along with his “Make America Great Again Committee, spent $13.6M on Facebook and Google from January 1st-the week of June 16th. But the campaign’s spending has been steadily increasing during the past two months. Since the first week of May, it has gone from spending $175k per week to $992k the week of June 16th. With what we know of Trump’s Google expenditures during the debate, it would not be a surprise to see his expenditures the week of the debate reach more than $2M. This is a fairly astounding sum at this point in the cycle.
No one in the Democratic field has a commanding lead in digital expenditures. Warren has held a narrow lead the last few weeks, spending approximately $150k/week on Facebook and Google. After Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, and Buttigieg were the next three top spenders the week before the debate. All three candidates were likely working to boost their images before shooting for a breakout moment at the debate. After Booker’s strong performance, it will be interesting to see if he continues a high level of digital expenditures to keep up the momentum. Sanders, Biden, and Harris are all spending less than $80k/week on digital, secure enough in their frontrunner status to keep their powder dry.
Digital expenditures were not the only thing the debates sparked. We saw several candidates and issue groups go up on television on debate nights. Tulsi Gabbard was the main player, spending $131k on broadcast during the 25th, 26th, and 27th in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Her ad “Running to Serve You” reflected many of the themes she emphasized in the debate, namely her military service and dedication to ending wars of regime change. Seth Moulton didn’t make the debate stage, but he did run $17k of ads on MSNBC in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina during both debates. His ad, a direct to camera spot, highlighted his military background and attacked the character and leadership of President Trump.
While Moulton and Gabbard were the only two candidates up on television, several issue groups were also capitalizing on the strong viewership. Club for Growth Action ran a spot in Iowa called “Dumb Things” clearly trying to knock front-runner Joe Biden down a peg in the first primary state. Act Now on Climate ran “Clean Energy Leader” in Iowa, touting Governor Inslee’s accomplishments on climate change. Hotel Workers for Stronger Communities ran “The Choice” on cable in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and New York, touting Mayor De Blasio’s accomplishments on universal, all-day Pre-K.
The debates offered an opportunity for both candidates and outside groups to get their messages out. For candidates and groups without direct access to voters from the debate stage (or especially limited time), running paid ads during the debate offered an opportunity to amplify a message to a group of viewers who are highly engaged and likely to vote. Candidates also spent heavily on digital media to disseminate their message to voters on social media. As usual though, it is President Trump who managed to make the biggest statement, with predictably huge expenditures on Facebook and Google. Though the numbers from debate week have not yet been released, we expect them to dwarf the previous week’s spending.