Since Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in April, the Trump campaign has spent $72 million in television advertising attacking the former vice president, with ads that veered rapidly on topics ranging from China to Biden’s age to policing policies. None significantly slowed Biden’s rising poll numbers.
On Tuesday, the messaging behemoth that has been the Trump campaign ground to a halt, as it temporarily suspended all television advertising nationwide in order to review its strategy under its new campaign manager, Bill Stepien.
While the pause will likely be short-lived — in a tweet Friday afternoon, the president said that they would be launching “a new ad campaign” Monday — the sudden decision is yet another sign that the campaign is reckoning with a yawning deficit in battleground state polling and an inability to find a defining message against Biden.
President Donald Trump on Friday made the decision to resume television ads Monday after a phone conversation with Stepien and Jason Miller, a senior strategist on the campaign, to discuss their review. The first ad, seeking to define Biden as both a failure and a tool of the extreme left, was part of a national ad buy. But a campaign official said the next round of advertising would focus specifically on states that begin voting early.
However brief, such a halt is unusual within the final 100 days of a presidential election, though it is unlikely that the six-day pause will have a significant effect one way or another on the Trump campaign’s ability to persuade voters come November. And the campaign sought to downplay its significance, tying it to the arrival of Stepien, who took over from Brad Parscale earlier in July.
Campaign officials noted that in 2016, Trump had not run a single television ad at this point in the race. But Trump’s first campaign was a shoestring operation, with little staff and minimal funds, while his 2020 team is sprawling, with $295 million in cash on hand and more than 1,500 staff members in the field.
Indeed, the pause is noteworthy given the size of Trump’s advertising effort till now: Since last January, the campaign has spent $202 million in television and digital advertising, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. Biden, by comparison, has spent about $95 million over the same period.
If anything, Trump’s advertising spending has only increased recently: Since early July his campaign has spent over $30 million on television and digital ads. Many of those ads sought to sow fear and division about the racial justice protests around the country, and several falsely stated Biden was in favor of defunding the police (he has stated repeatedly that he is not).
The Trump campaign has been equally abundant in battleground states, spending $61 million since April across 11 states. It has also begun advertising in states that were previously considered safe for Democrats, like Minnesota, though it also has completely stopped advertising in Michigan.
And even as the Trump campaign claims it is reassessing its messaging strategy, it uploaded a new ad to YouTube on Friday morning reiterating many of the messages it has been airing all spring and summer.
Meanwhile, Trump’s main super PAC, America First Action, remains on the airwaves in four states, with $5 million reserved in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona this week and next week. On Friday, the PAC added $860,000 to its buys in Pennsylvania and Arizona, according to Advertising Analytics. A second group, Restoration PAC, began a $2.5 million two-week buy in Michigan this week.
The goal of the pause, officials said, was for Stepien to take a look at what television shows the campaign was advertising on and what time of day those ads were running, and then decide whether to tweak the mix to make sure the advertisements were reaching the right voters.
One Republican consultant close to the campaign said the best window for spending was right after the convention, when it would be in a place to go up and never have to come back down.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, still signs off on every large advertising expenditure, as he did when Parscale ran the campaign. Kushner, a White House official said, agreed with the temporary pause, arguing that it was beneficial to the president to have fresh eyes looking at spending decisions.
Some former Trump officials said it was a good move to step back in the middle of the summer, when there was still plenty of time to readjust.
“Considering the curveball COVID threw into the political landscape, it’s smart of the campaign to reassess what the most effective messaging is and where and when to place their ad dollars,” said Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary who ran communications for the Republican National Committee in 2016.
But other Republican observers questioned the wisdom of going dark so close to the election.
“It’s too early to determine what impact the cancellation of TV has on the Trump campaign, but any time your opponent is running ads with no retaliation it can have significant impact,” said Sig Rogich, a Republican strategist from Nevada who worked on George H.W. Bush’s campaigns and advised Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid. He recalled a moment in the 1988 presidential race when the Bush team spent an entire week between conventions as the only campaign on air, helping to erase the lead of his opponent, Michael Dukakis.But that was also before digital advertising became a major arm of a campaign’s messaging strategy, and the Trump campaign is still pouring millions into digital ads each day. It has dozens of active ads on Facebook, serving as both fundraising ads and caustic attacks against Biden. Over the past week, the Trump campaign spent nearly $4.8 million on the platform — $575,000 on Wednesday alone, the most recent day for which spending data is available.
Still, overall, the Trump campaign’s hundreds of millions in advertisements have sometimes seemed more of a show of force than a targeted buy. The campaign spent $10 million on two ads during the Super Bowl last year, and over $30 million has gone toward national advertising, a tactic criticized by some operatives as wasteful because it’s paying for time in safe states rather than targeted buys in battlegrounds.
Some observers also said Trump missed an opportunity to take advantage of his incumbency and negatively define Biden as he was emerging from the primaries. When former President Barack Obama spent millions on ads attacking Mitt Romney during the summer of 2012, his messaging was disciplined. The Trump campaign has not had a similar focus.
“It’s not just that the Trump campaign is behind, it’s that they’ve blown this historic opportunity to define an opponent, and its extraordinary,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist and former senior adviser for Romney’s campaign. “They basically had the field to themselves, and they still couldn’t score.”
And now the Biden campaign is moving to close the gap.
As Trump’s campaign goes off the air, the Biden campaign has made its biggest buys yet, targeting older voters in Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with an ad on Trump’s response to the coronavirus. Biden has spent $21 million on television last week and this week, according to data from Advertising Analytics, with the biggest share, $3.3 million, going to Florida.
Still, since taking over as campaign manager, Stepien has tried to project confidence about the president’s chances in November.
“We only need to win either Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania to win this thing again,” Stepien told reporters last week. Stepien said he still saw the pickup opportunities in New Hampshire and Minnesota that he had hoped for before the pandemic shifted the race.
And though it has temporarily paused its advertising, the Trump campaign still has more than $146 million in television and radio ads booked through November, a number that far outpaces the Biden campaign’s. None of those reservations have been altered or shifted yet as part of the current review.