Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s official entrance into the 2020 presidential race earlier this week has upped the ante for campaign spending on ads.
TV ad spending this primary cycle has already been lopsided.
But Bloomberg’s splash outmatches what every other Democratic campaign has invested in television so far, with the exception of Tom Steyer’s.
Among the hopefuls who began running much earlier this year — or even before 2019, in a few cases — their advertising footprint is only just beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet the Manhattan media mogul and late entrant is testing assumptions about the viability of the current field by directing the bulk of his ad blitz elsewhere.
Bloomberg, 77, re-registered as a Democrat in 2018 after running as a Republican during his early mayoral campaigns from 2001 to 2007. In between, he was unaffiliated with either party during the second half of his mayoral tenure, leaving office in 2013.
Bloomberg’s roughly $30 million TV ad campaign is part of an effort to skip the four earliest-voting states in the Democratic primary: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Instead, his campaign has indicated the plan is to focus on the so-called Super Tuesday contests, which span the country and include populous, delegate-rich states like California, Massachusetts, Virginia and Texas.
California billionaire and philanthropist Tom Steyer has spent more than any other Democratic presidential hopeful so far this cycle — and it’s not even close.
Steyer has shelled out $54.8 million on TV and online ads up to now, in addition to a slew of mailers that hit the Monadnock Region shortly after he entered the race.
The investment has paid off on two fronts.
Steyer has registered around 3 percent in national polls and sometimes higher in some early-state ones, getting a boost in name recognition despite entering the race late (in July) and not being a household name.
Another key advantage of the mailers was getting small donations from enough people to qualify for the televised debates. To earn his spot on stage last week under DNC rules, Steyer had to amass 165,000 individual donors.
Bloomberg’s estimated $35 million ad spending to date — which includes some TV spending not announced in his $30 million rollout, according to Advertising Analytics LLC — is the next most sizable chunk.
At this point, Bloomberg and Steyer account for around two-thirds of all ad spending on the Democratic side of the presidential race.
President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has spent $33.6 million on ads, and he is also being supported over the airwaves by the Republican National Committee and pro-Trump Super PACs that, unlike a presidential campaign, do not have to disclose their donations.
For the Democratic candidates who have been in the race longer than Steyer and Bloomberg — and who aren’t billionaires with the ability to self-fund — most of their fundraising has gone into staffing up in the early-voting states, building out a national headquarters, and soliciting small donations with targeted social media ads.
The one exception is former Maryland congressman John Delaney, who has spent tens of millions of dollars on his own campaign but failed to clear the increased individual-donor thresholds to get into the past three debates.
The biggest ad spenders after the three billionaires are the top four polling candidates in the Democratic primary: Elizabeth Warren ($15.6 million), Pete Buttigieg ($14.1 million), Bernie Sanders ($12.6 million) and Joe Biden ($9.6 million).
From Andrew Yang on down, the rest of the field has spent no more than $5 million, each, on ads.
But now that the New Hampshire primary is fewer than 80 days away on Feb. 11, the TV and social media ads coming from the campaigns are showing more variety, often going into the biographies of the candidates and homing in on a message.
Buttigieg, for example, has an ad airing in New Hampshire that begins with a photo of his time serving in Afghanistan as a Naval intelligence officer.
In a 30-second ad titled “Growing up,” Sanders uses a deep-voiced narrator to describe his commitment to economic justice because of his working-class background. That spot aired 558 times in the Granite State between Nov. 8 and 22, according to FiveThirtyEight’s ad tracker.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s “All of America” spot has aired mostly in New Hampshire and Iowa, showing a drone shot of railroad tracks with shots of white-picket-fence middle America as Klobuchar speaks about the importance of uniting the country.
As more spending comes into the advertising space, the narrative techniques get more diverse.
Yang’s biggest buy so far has come in the form of a one-minute ad about his biography that has aired more than 1,000 times in New Hampshire this month. But instead of doing a few quick slides with archival photos, Yang juxtaposes drone shots, in-house footage from crowded campaign rallies and snapshots of his career as a tech startup founder. One juncture the ad emphasizes is with then-President Barack Obama as an official White House “Champion of Change” in 2011 and “Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship” in 2015.
It also switches halfway through to dark overtones, showing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the start of a montage lambasting corporate greed.
The dark music and horizontal VHS-tape-era lines crossing the screen are hallmarks of negative ads that come close to general elections. But Yang’s minute-long spot sandwiches those motifs with shots of the candidate on the stump, automated warehouse stock robots and even a wide view of the sun coming over the horizon from space.
And this is all still 74 days before the New Hampshire primary.
The good news here is more variety is coming to Granite Staters’ TV screens and YouTube browsing. The bad news is it’s only going to get much, much more crowded.