President Trump stopped all of his television and radio advertising in three states and substantially reduced it in four others in recent weeks after his lackluster fundraising left him unable to match a surge in spending by his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
Trump’s retreat from Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire reflects his struggle to change the dynamics of a race that polls suggest he is on track to lose. In the six weeks since his party’s national convention, Trump’s campaign has yanked more than $17 million in ads he’d previously booked in those states.
Two of them, Ohio and Iowa, are must-wins for the Republican president. Polls show him running almost dead even with the former vice president in both. Trump’s withdrawal of advertising in those states — despite the risk — is a sign of his campaign’s poor financial condition.
“It seems the Trump campaign has reached the point where they have to do some triage,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “They don’t seem to have enough money to run ads everywhere.”
By contrast, Biden has been sharply increasing his ad spending across the entire election map and has begun pouring money into states that once looked out of reach. Among them are Texas, Georgia, Ohio and Iowa. In the week that will end Monday, Biden’s $36 million in TV and radio spots overall is double Trump’s $18 million, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm.
The reason for the disparity is clear: Trump has far less money than Biden. At the end of August, Biden reported $466 million in the bank, and Trump $325 million, according to filings at the Federal Election Commission and tallies shared by the campaigns.
“If you are Trump’s campaign manager, you never expected to find yourself in this situation this late in the campaign, where the Democrat has a lot more money,” said Linda Fowler, professor emerita of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
“It’s because of a combination of things, like Trump’s people spending way too much money early on on things like expensive Super Bowl ads. And Biden’s fundraising, which initially looked so weak, took off in a big way.”
Since the end of August, Trump has also cut $11 million in ad time that he’d previously reserved in Nevada, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to Advertising Analytics.
Part of what Trump is doing is shifting resources into states he sees as essential to get the 270 electoral votes he needs to win a second term in the Nov. 3 election: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona. Trump added $18 million to the ad spending he’d already reserved for the last six weeks in those states.
Trump’s financial strain is also showing in Pennsylvania, another state he can’t afford to lose. After pulling about $2 million in ads he’d planned to run there in September, he has ramped up spending in Pennsylvania in the last couple of weeks.
In its hunt for quick cash, the Trump campaign has been making urgent appeals. In the 24 hours ending Friday morning, one potential donor received 13 emails and five text messages with pleas for money from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others. Subject lines included “Basement Biden,” “Totally and Completely Corrupt,” and “Kamala Was a Mess,” alluding to Pence’s debate Wednesday with California Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate.
In the campaign’s final weeks, Trump could shift priorities and spend heavily in states where he has pulled back. But more than 9 million Americans have already cast their ballots and more people vote each day, so the target audience is steadily shrinking.
Trump spokeswoman Samantha Zager said Democrats and the media were applauding Biden “for overspending on TV ads.” She said Trump’s campaign had been “talking directly with voters for years in all of these states,” in part through online content and digital ads.
“We’re confident our strategy will lead President Trump to victory while Biden is left to binge-watch his TV ads from his basement,” she said.
In 2016, Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, outspent him on advertising, but his brash antics drew enormous free media coverage. Cable news channels often carried his rallies live. And Clinton, unlike Biden, was viscerally disliked by many voters. Now, however, Trump is an unpopular incumbent defending a tumultuous presidency that has polarized the nation.
The election environment could hardly be worse for Trump, who was hospitalized Oct. 2 with COVID-19. The pandemic has killed more than 214,000 Americans, put more than 11 million out of work and disrupted the lives of virtually everyone. The United States makes up 4% of the world’s population, but 20% of its COVID-19 fatalities.
Making matters worse as his campaign draws to a close is that Trump’s failure to require masks and social distancing at the White House has spawned a coronavirus outbreak that has infected dozens in his inner circle and beyond.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, said Friday that Trump’s White House celebration of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court was a “superspreader event.”
Trump’s woes are clear in the latest polls. Biden has widened his lead nationwide to 10 percentage points, according to a FiveThirtyEight aggregate of public surveys.
More threatening to Trump is the daunting electoral college map: Polls show Biden ahead in every state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and in nine of those that went for Trump.
Voters prefer Biden by more than 5 percentage points in the three states Trump won by tiny margins: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Biden holds narrower leads in six other states that Trump carried: Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Ohio and Georgia.
Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said the Democrat was expanding the election map with ads in 16 states that “maximize the paths to 270 electoral votes.”
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“Meanwhile, while Donald Trump is personally super-spreading the virus by acting irresponsibly and against the advice of medical experts, his campaign is in full retreat and appealing only to his base,” Ducklo said. Trump gave a speech from a White House balcony Saturday to hundreds of supporters on the South Lawn. Few in the crowd social distanced or wore masks.
Trump’s latest ads say he will eradicate the coronavirus, create 10 million jobs and protect Social Security and Medicare, a pitch to regain the support of older voters put off by his handling of the pandemic. Trump is also airing spots that falsely claim Biden opposes the police and encourages rioting.
In Michigan on Friday, Trump started airing an ad portraying the pandemic as receding when in fact about 46,000 new infections and 700 deaths still occur every day, and nearly 35,000 Americans are now hospitalized with COVID-19. The spot shows Trump walking out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as a narrator says: “President Trump is recovering from the coronavirus, and so is America.”
Biden’s ads also try to appeal to seniors, attacking Trump on Social Security and Medicare. In Tucson on Saturday, he began running a spot featuring Cindy McCain saying Biden would “bring out the best in us, not the worst,” and highlighting his friendship with her late husband, John McCain, a longtime Republican senator from Arizona.
Biden’s commercials also promise he will take the advice of scientists and medical experts to get the pandemic under control and rebuild the economy in a way that favors working-class Americans.
”I will not abandon you,” Biden says in one of the ads.