Local cable political ad spend data shows that down-ballot races in 2016 were largely influenced by total spend on cable. The Senate candidates who spent more than their opponents in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada, Connecticut, Hawaii and New York all won or retained their seats.
At the national level, cable ad spend did not make a significant impact on Donald Trump. However, Senate candidates benefited greatly from an increased ad presence on the airwaves.
“While the Clinton presidential campaign and pro-Clinton PACs outspent Trump significantly on local cable advertising by 9-to-1 across the country in our markets, this just wasn’t enough to overcome the (free) earned-media strategy adopted by the populist Trump campaign,” stated Mark Lieberman, Viamedia president, CEO.
In short, the media's free ride eliminated Trump's need for ad buying.
Many believe Trump’s sizable lead in earned-media gave him a key visibility boost and clear advantage over his rivals; it made ad spending moot. Trump’s persona and bombastic character may have upped TV ratings, producing a cycle that fed the beast. Critics have slammed the TV networks for covering Trump rallies in full, as well as their failure to demand he submit tax returns and a detailed health report.
Would the outcome have been different if Trump's finances were as scrutinized as Clinton's emails?
Down ballot, the story was different.
According to Viamedia, incumbent Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio accounted for 86% of political ads in his Senate race against Ted Strickland, and won with over 58% of the vote.
Likewise, Sen. Marco Rubio outspent Rep. Patrick Murphy 59% to 41% in Florida, a race where the Democratic leadership pulled cable spending in the final months of the campaign. Rubio, who vacated his seat earlier in the year, ultimately kept it with 52% of the vote to Murphy’s 44.3%.
Pennsylvania’s Senate race saw Sen. Pat Toomey outspend challenger Katie McGinty 94% to 6% — and barely edge out the win by just over 100,000 votes. Embattled North Carolina incumbent Sen. Richard Burr also heavily outdid his Democratic opponent Deborah Ross, with almost 100% of the cable ad spend. Despite the overwhelming cable presence, his final lead was only 6 points.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in geo-targeted TV ad spending from ‘down-ballot’ candidates, PACs and issues advertisers,” added Lieberman. “Successful political advertisers during this unprecedented election cycle have embraced the uniqueness of the data and geo-targeting capability of local cable to reach the right voters effectively.”
Overall, 47% of political advertising on cable came from PACs and issue advertisers. Down-ballot campaigns accounted for a hefty 38%, mostly Senate and House races, while 15% of the total spend on cable accounted for presidential campaigns and their supporting PACs.
The largest markets for the presidential campaigns were in Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina for Clinton, three states that she lost. Florida and Indiana received the majority of dollars from the Trump camp.
Cable advertising has retained a strong role in the political market, particularly in down-ballot races and swing states.