Perpetual Political Advertising
Political expenditures reached historic levels in 2020, partially due to a highly competitive presidential race. From January 1, 2020 to November 3, 2020, we tracked a total of $7.4 billion in spending and 8.2 million ad airings. After such a highly competitive year, it was reasonable to expect a lull in political advertising and spending. But it seems that this reasonable and even desirable expectation is no longer the norm; we have reached the point of perpetual political campaigning. Between issue advertising from PACs and committees, special elections, and early spending for 2022, the airwaves have been anything but quiet.
Voters in Georgia have been particularly unlucky and exposed to a slew of political advertising. Georgia became a crucial state for the Democratic party in 2020, helping elect Joe Biden and sending both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate in historic wins. Because both Senate races went to a runoff, voters in Georgia were inundated with political ads long past election day. Between November 3, 2020 and January 6, 2021, 201 unique political ads for both runoff races aired 344K times. These runoffs made the 2020 elections in Georgia historic, not only because it was the first time a Democrat had won a national statewide election since 2000, but because the race between Ossoff and Perdue became the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history with $412 million in spending.
With the conclusion of the runoffs, Georgia voters received a respite from political ads, but not for long. Despite the absence of any major races in the state until 2022, Georgia has received more political advertising in the last month than any state except New York (advertisement volume is high in New York because of the mayoral race that will take place on June 22, 2021). This advertising in Georgia has centered around voter rights and the 2022 battle for the Senate that’s already getting started. Multiple political action groups and committees have run advertisements about both the Georgia voting laws that were just passed and H.R. 1 (the For the People Act), the Democratic bill aimed at expanding voters’ rights and updating election practices that passed the House in early March.
Georgia voters are not alone in their exposure to the next round of political ads, though. Some of the earliest Senate spending we have ever seen in a cycle has started. A new group, Restoration PAC has begun spending in states with potentially vulnerable Senate races in 2022, such as in New Hampshire, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona and Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia are both in an interesting scenario in which both Senators won a special election in 2020 but are up for reelection in 2022 to seek a full 6-year term in the Senate. In addition, GOP groups are messaging on voting in several states, and in Ohio and Alabama the first Senate candidates have already placed ad buys. You read that right, advertising for 2022 has started (in relatively high volumes) and it’s just April 2021; let’s dive into some of the specifics for each party.
Political Advertising About Georgia Election Laws
Georgia has seen the highest volume of voting-related ads of any state, with five different groups on air in the state messaging about voter rights. There are two categories of ads – those that relate directly to Georgia’s new election law, and those that relate to the For the People Act.
Democrats have largely focused on the Georgia-specific law. Fair Fight Action and New Georgia Project are groups that oppose the law. They have positioned their messaging around voting restrictions and have spent $2.2 million on ads that aired about 2,500 times between February 24, 2021 and April 4, 2021. Fair Fight Action has run two creatives: “Voting Laws” and “Voting is Our Right,” while New Georgia Project has run “Call Out Corporate CEOs.” The messaging in these three creatives aligns with the overall Democratic party’s characterization of the law as an effort to restrict ballot access. Fair Fights’ two advertisements focus heavily on either mail-in voting or broad concerns about limited access to polling locations and ballots. “Call Out Corporate CEOs” puts pressure on private companies to stand against Georgia’s new voting laws. The ad actually displays the logos of UPS, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta, Aflac, and Southern Company. In response to these ads and pressure from activists and voters as well as some elected officials, many of these companies have come out against the Georgia laws. Watch “Call Out Corporate CEOs”:
Republican advertisers and political action committees have defended the Georgia bill as a measure to protect election security, but the party has mostly focused on Georgia as part of a larger campaign against the For the People Act. Heritage Action for America is the only group running a spot specifically supporting the Georgia laws with “Election Security Reform.” This ad focuses on the confusion around the 2020 elections due to the influx of mail-in ballots and presents the Georgia law as an election security law and a way to bring order and dignity back to Georgia elections. Multiple GOP groups such as Restoration Action and the NRSC have aired the creatives, “Vote No” and “Power Grab” respectively. Each advertisement urges Georgia’s senators not to support S. 1. by either touting the law as a Democratic power grab or by framing it as detrimental to election security. In total, Heritage Action for America, Restoration PAC, and the NRSC have spent a combined $2.1 million on political ads.
Though Georgia has seen the largest number of voting-related ads, it is not the only state that is part of the GOP campaign against S. 1. Voters in other states with potentially vulnerable Senators are seeing ads too.
GOP Ads Target Senators on S. 1
The GOP offensive campaign against S. 1 also includes Arizona, New Hampshire, and Nevada. In each of these states a Democrat will be up in the Senate in 2022 and the GOP must flip at least one of those seats to reclaim the Senate majority. GOP groups have spent more than $500k in Arizona, New Hampshire, and Nevada each, attacking S. 1 as a “power grab,” which is similar to language used by the party in Georgia.
In Arizona, Heritage Action for America is up with political ads specifically targeting Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, urging them to vote no on S.1. The NRSC also went up in Arizona with one Spanish-language creative and another that’s identical to the ad running in Georgia. Both ads frame the bill as political corruption and tie it directly to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. They are also running these ads in Nevada and New Hampshire, targeting democratic Senators in each state.
Notably, no Republican groups are airing any ads in West Virginia. Machin has been the target of GOP ads lately, urging him to vote against Biden cabinet nominees. The absence of voting-related ads in West Virginia suggests that the GOP intends to use this message as a campaign tool for 2022 and doesn’t plan on using precious resources to target Democrats who aren’t candidates for reelection.
GOP advertising is not limited to current legislation, though. Believe it or not, candidates for 2022 are starting to hit the air.
Senate Election Campaigns Kick Off
Even without a presidential election, 2022 will be another big spending year. With several competitive seats up for grabs, and control of the Senate in the balance, we expect Senate ad spending in 2022 to reach historic levels, perhaps similar to those seen in 2020. We expect both competitive general elections and tough primaries. Spending for two Senate seats in Ohio and Alabama has already started from certain candidates.
In Ohio, Senator Rob Portman’s retirement leaves an empty seat and Republicans Josh Mandel and Jane Timkin have already launched their initial media buys. Timkin went up with her first political ads during the last week of February, and has ads running until the week of April 18th. So far, she has spent $347K exclusively on cable. Mandel’s buy was smaller and shorter, totaling $28k from 3/29-4/4. He ran “Our Brightest Light.” The advertisement highlights his faith. We expect to see high levels of spending from both the major parties for this Senate election campaign. Ohio will be competitive given that, while trending red, has been known to be a battleground and overwhelmingly reelected Sherrod Brown in 2018.
The Alabama Senate race is sure to be one of the most heated Republican party primaries of the cycle. Donald Trump recently endorsed Mo Brooks, which should give him an advantage in a state in which Trump beat Biden by a nearly 2:1 margin. Even so, the competition is fierce. Candidate Lynda Blanchard has already launched the first ad of the cycle in the Alabama Senate race and is implementing a fascinating media strategy. She reserved $100k in ad time from 3/11-4/9, and then another $2.1 million from 3/7-5/30 in 2022. Booking ad time for a primary a year in advance is not common, so it could serve as a warning to her potential rival candidates about her financial strength for a prolonged election campaign. Her first advertisement “March Madness” positions her as a Christian conservative who is running to put Alabama first and stop socialism.
While it is still extremely early in the 2022 political cycle, voting rights look like they are going to be a major talking point for both sides. Republicans are already attacking Democratic Senators who could be vulnerable in 2022 on S. 1, while Democrats in Georgia are criticizing local laws that would restrict voting access. We will continue to track this issue which is the most prominent in the current political conversation and political ads. However, issues can and do change. Global pandemics notwithstanding, the political cycle moves so quickly that issues that seem like they will be the main topic of political advertisements can easily be forgotten months later. Depending on the fight over S. 1 and any subsequent state-level laws around voters’ rights, this topic could remain in the spotlight or take a backseat.
This constant state of campaigning and political ads and spending may have reached a point of flipping the norms in the political media world on its head. It will be particularly interesting to monitor spending in an election year without a presidential election. Data trends and predictions for political action in the 2022 election cycle will be monitored closely.
*Please note, all data is current as of April 6th. These races may have seen more activity since that date. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org