Money Can’t Buy You Love: The New Normal?

December 9, 2020

In a blog earlier this year, I argued that 2020 political races during COVID-19 were going to be more dependent on advertising than ever. Candidates, for the time being, would not be able to count on door-to-door canvassing, debates would likely have to be held without large audiences, and political rallies would face unexpected significant new constraints.

What was not immediately obvious was that, despite these impediments, this election season would be by far the most expensive in our history and engender tremendous voter participation. Billions of dollars were spent on political ads. Over 160 million people voted in 2020, more than 66 percent of the potential turn-out; this was the largest voter percentage in the U.S. since 1900.

David Runyon, the noted newspaperman and short story writer, famously asserted that, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet.” The 2020 elections may force people to rethink these wagers. 

Throughout the 2020 elections, dollars spent were usually not a good predictor of political success and voter approval. President-elect Biden consistently was outspent by multiple competitors for the Democrat nomination. Billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer alone spent over one billion three hundred and forty million dollars on their short-lived campaigns. Yet, Bloomberg won only one primary — American Samoa — and fifty-five delegates, while Steyer did not even gain a single delegate. Rarely has so much been spent so quickly for so little. This demonstrates that advertising, even good or excellent advertising, does not necessarily overcome strong preexisting political perceptions or missteps of the candidates themselves.

It was not just at the presidential level, however, that ad investments escalated dramatically. Eight of the ten most expensive Senate races in history occurred this year. Four of them were held in states without the largest media markets (Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, and South Carolina), yet they still generated aggregate spending of more than $200 million.

Once again, however, Will Roger’s comment that, “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated” proved accurate. Despite the fact that Democrats substantially outspent Republicans in Senate elections in South Carolina, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina and, in fact, most of the states with competitive elections, it was only in Arizona and Colorado that they prevailed.

The political advertising battle, however, is far from over. The two remaining run-off elections in Georgia that will determine which party has control of the Senate is projected, in its mere 32-day duration, to cost more than $200 million.

It is not surprising that, with almost everyone more dependent on digital communications than ever, digital political advertising continued to increase substantially. It has been estimated that as much as 20 percent of all political advertising was digital this year. To help voters better navigate digital political ads, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) has developed digital tools to increase transparency and accountability. This initiative includes development of a Political Ad icon and new guidance for political advertisers. This industry-wide initiative is meant to increase transparency and accountability around digital political ads. Clicking on the icon will provide voters with additional information such as the identity of the political advertiser and contact information as well as additional transparency.

Modeled on the DAA’s AdChoices program, the Better Business Bureau National Programs and the ANA both provide the enforcement arm for this initiative. The DAA Political Ads icon helps to provide far greater transparency. During this year’s election cycle, several ad tech companies worked with candidates and campaigns to deliver the DAA Political Ads icon and disclosures alongside their ads. In addition, DAA maintains a campaign-lookup data base for voters to use; all of this helps voters to better navigate digital political advertising. 

Now we all will have to see if this year’s extraordinary electoral developments are black swan events, driven by hyper-partisan activation and unique pandemic circumstances, or whether the politically improbable, characterized by extraordinary political ad spending and voter involvement becomes the new normal.

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