The "Trump Effect" On Political Advertising

With the Democratic and Republican primaries largely settled, presidential-level political ad spending in most states has somewhat settled down –  for now.  

While advertising in House and Senate – not to mention mayoral and gubernatorial – races continue at higher levels than we’ve seen in prior cycles, television political advertising, while robust, now seems to be humming along.

Recently, on a nationwide basis, the share of total spot cable advertising coming from the political category is settling in around the teens as a percentage.

Skeptics cite it to suggest Trump’s enormous use of earned (free) media has obviated political ads, while others suggest the presumptive GOP nominee’s widespread TV exposure spurred Trump primary competitors and now spurs the Clinton campaign, and supporting PACs – and even down-ticket candidates and issues advertisers – to spend more to break through the Trump clutter.

While the jury may be out on which of the two takes on “the Trump effect” currently holds more water, one thing we do know is that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of advertising for this political cycle.  

The variable is the size of the iceberg.  Historically, two-thirds of all political billing happens in the General Election window -- roughly Labor Day through Election Day.

Campaigns and PACs are buying smarter.

DC-based media buyers working on behalf of campaigns and PACs are buying cable earlier in the cycle as they seek to lock in programming and rate.  

While market demand will still drive up rate during the final weeks, this early-bird approach might still position buyers more advantageously, and help them manage their resources better in advance of what has typically been a surge in home-stretch spending.

For the first time in nearly a quarter-century, we’re likely to see a credible third-party presidential candidate.

Ross Perot’s ability to draw 19% of the presidential vote made for an historic 1992 election. Regardless of the rumors of a “third-party” challenge from the right of Trump’s candidacy, we already have a third-party challenge on the ballot in 32 states (as of this writing):  the Libertarian Party.

Party candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson has just been joined by popular former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld as his VP candidate – bringing the ticket more attention and possibly more access to funds.

The relatively unknown Johnson, who has yet to begin serious advertising or to participate in a major 2016 presidential debate, is already at 10% (vs. 42% for Clinton and 39% for Trump) in a recent poll.

Geo-targeting will play an even greater role.

For his recently released book “Going Red: The Two Million Voters Who Will Elect the Next President—and How Conservatives Can Win Them,” conservative blogger Ed Morrissey talked to voters in seven swing counties.

In 2004, George W. Bush won them; in 2008 and again in 2012, Barack Obama won them; and, Morrissey argues, they will once again be crucial if not determinative in 2016. For its part, the Obama campaign advanced the use of targeted cable political advertising substantially -- shrewdly reaching young male voters, for example, with geo-located cable buys during ESPN programming.

Today, we’re seeing more examples of this, with campaigns targeting women voters with buys during HGTV programming, for example. For the 2016 cycle, targeting will take on greater importance as campaigns aim their buys based not solely on demographics but on finely tuned location and preferences.

Cable can geo-target in crucial ways in an election.

Digital-only online video advertising still has some kinks to work out.

We’ve all heard horror stories about programmatically delivered digital-video online ads popping up alongside porn, but this political season has brought us a newer phenomenon: Political and other ads appearing alongside jihadist content.  

A “Vote Trump” ad could recently be found juxtaposed with an ISIS video.  

More recently, a jihadist propaganda site was found to have been selling space to major global brands -- and making tidy profits. The digital video industry has been making significant strides in addressing these types of issues.

“Environment” counts and, for all the talk from some digital sellers about “waste” in TV spending, digital ad tech still has a lot of work to do before it can credibly challenge TV as a platform for political ads.

A lot of prognosticators have been proven wrong about this presidential season; those who forecast growth in TV ad spending so far have been proven accurate. And cable is the right horse to bet on.
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