The 2020 presidential race is shaping up to be a record year for political ad spending — and digital is poised to land a larger share of that spending. Democrats are fired up (with more than 20 Dems running for president), President Trump is aiming to bank a billion dollars for his reelection effort, and campaign managers conditioned by digital media will be in charge of many campaigns.
Nevertheless, most estimates for political ad spending are wildly exaggerated. Many of these estimates simply inflate previous studies that implausibly showed more money spent on political ads than was raised and spent on all items in all political campaigns.
Politics, of course, is not the most transparent business. There remains limited visibility into some major areas of campaign spending. While there are some significant unknowns in answering these questions, objective data and informed extrapolations from a variety of sources can provide guidance.
Spending Must Be Surgical
Let’s start with what is the most important factor for figuring out “the number,” or the amount likely to be raised and spent in the 2020 cycle. The best source for how much is raised and spent on federal campaigns comes from The Center for Responsive Politics. It shows its estimates for the six federal election cycles, including the last three presidential election years. Figures include all the money spent by candidates for president, candidates for the House of Representatives and Senate, political parties, and interest groups. (See figure 1.)
There are hundreds of local and state races, state referendums, and other political battles, of course, and spending on federal election campaigns does not comprise all political spending. However, in mid-term years, with nearly 40 governors’ races taking place alongside battles for state legislatures and other state offices, federal spending still comprises more than two-thirds of all political ad spending.
In a presidential year, when the race for the White House is part of the federal side of the ledger and there are only nine governor’s races, the share comprised of federal spending tends to be close to 90 percent. And when it comes to spending on media, federal races tend to comprise an even greater share.
How much is likely to be raised in 2020? That depends on enthusiasm (or anger) among voters and the number of competitive races. Enthusiasm and anger are certainly in place this election cycle. However, when it comes to House and Senate races, the playing field is likely to be much smaller than it was in 2018. Although it is still early days in the cycle, Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher at Inside Elections estimates that there will be fewer competitive House and Senate races in 2020 vs. 2018.
But let’s make an assumption that the fever pitch continues as the Congressional elections shift into high gear, and that the nearly 40 percent increase from 2016 to 2018 in Congressional spending remains baked in, yielding a total of $5.7 billion in spending.
The $6 Billion Political Season?
Moving to the presidential race, let’s assume there’s an increase along the lines of political ad spending from 2004 to 2008. That would translate to $3 billion in ad spending for the presidential race and overall $8.7 billion in federal spending. Tossing in another $1.3 billion in nonfederal spending, which also seems generous given the paucity of competitive governors’ races in large states, would add up to $10 billion dollars in total political spending.
For the $10 billion political advertising spending number making the rounds to be correct, not only would fundraising records need to be shattered, but campaigns couldn’t spend a single cent on anything but advertising, meaning no expenditures on polls, planes, office space, salaries, or even a single slice of pizza.
Although there is significant variance in campaigns, approximately 60 percent of campaign budgets flow to paid message delivery, according to Kantar. This shows an estimate of $6 billion in ad spending. Many of the campaign managers for 2020 are digital natives. As a result, it’s reasonable to expect that resources will shift resources to that channel. Kantar expects digital to receive 20 percent of the total, or $1.2 billion in 2020. With more campaign managers being digital natives, there’s been a significant increase in the share targeted toward digital in 2020, garnering 20 percent of the total, or $1.2 billion.
Kantar estimates broadcast and cable television will remain strong, with broadcast outlets commanding $3.2 billion and cable generating $1.2 billion. Radio is in line to garner $400 million. Comparing this to 2016, broadcast TV tallied $2.85 billion, cable had $800 million, and digital (paid media only) was estimated at approximately $700 million to 800 million.
Sharp Pivot to Digital Spending
The share that digital media will garner is one of the great unknowns in 2020. In 2016, the Clinton campaign spent 2.5 percent of its total budget and 6 percent of its media budget on digital outlets. The 2016 Sanders campaign spent 12.5 percent of its total budget and 25 percent of its media budget on digital. The Trump campaign spent more than 40 percent of its ad budget on digital in 2016. At the high end of digital spending in 2018, Beto O’Rourke spent about 20 percent of his total campaign budget on digital during the Texas Senate race. Twenty percent is a good baseline measure for digital share.
Facebook and Google together capture about 60 percent of the digital ad market and extrapolating from their publicly released numbers will enable tracking of the category in 2020. However, akin to most political advertising, the numbers regarding digital spending are released late in the election cycle and may not be known until right before Election Day.
Facebook Hands Down
One early indicator of digital spending for the president campaign: President Trump and several of his Democratic challengers have been very active on Facebook. According to figures from Pathmatics, as of June 24, 2019, Donald Trump had spent close to $17 million on Facebook advertising, with Bernie Sanders the next-highest spender at $6.2 million. (Pathmatics is a partner of Kantar.)
Overall, Pathmatics recorded ads from 15 Democratic candidates, in addition to both Trump and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. By comparison, just four candidates ran any advertising on television, along with some interest groups that also placed ads related to the 2020 race. Altogether, candidates and leading special interest groups spent just $2.2 million on TV advertising in the first half of this year, as compared to $37.6 million on
TV advertising was led by Tom Steyer’s Need to Impeach group and not by any individual candidates. The Need to Impeach ads are running on a combination of national cable networks and local markets in early primary/caucus states. The candidate with the most TV spending to date is former Congressman John Delaney, who spent more than $600,000 trying to introduce himself to voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Facebook’s huge advantage over TV ad spending doesn’t seem that unusual considering the current stage of the campaign and how adept Facebook is at helping candidates organize, draw volunteers, and raise funds. Democrats, in particular, were likely relying on Facebook to help them reach the minimum polling and individual donor thresholds needed to get on the debate stage in Miami in late June. Meanwhile, some of Trump’s investment may be more geared toward shifting attitudes on specific issues rather than just his reelection campaign.
Accordingly, it’s difficult to gauge this early in the campaign season exactly what roles social and traditional media will play during the course of 2020. It’s important to remember that it’s six months before the first primaries and 18 months before the final votes are tallied. Spending on television and other types of advertising will grow significantly as the election shifts into high gear. However, it’s pretty clear that Facebook has become a critical tool for political campaigns and will likely remain so through Election Day next November.
Steve Passwaiter is the general manager of CMAG in the Kantar Media Division at Kantar, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.