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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, March 16, 2016

So far, this hasn't been television's election. CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves might gloat otherwise, but media conglomerate C-suiters are earnings-obsessed. Practitioners and observers of political TV advertising are outcome-obsessed. While the former may grin over the $323 million in presidential TV ad spending so far, the latter folks see mounting evidence that TV isn't getting it done the way it used to.

Marco Rubio, who deemphasized organizing in favor of TV and other media, both paid and earned, is now out of the race. Remember, Rubio was the first candidate to reserve ad time, his made-for-TV campaign grabbing an opportunity for press coverage in June about ads that wouldn't air till November.

The presidential candidate who spent most by far on TV failed awhile back. Even now, more than three weeks after Jeb Bush dropped out, the $77 million in TV ads on his behalf still accounts for almost 25% of all TV ad spend in the presidential race to date.

And Republican frontrunner Donald Trump rolls on, seemingly impervious to TV ads attacking him and largely eschewing ads of his own. He has spent less on TV than any other candidate still in the race, plus a few who aren't (I'm lumping super PAC activity in with their corresponding candidates). He has aired a mere eight unique commercials; his Republican opponents have aired several dozen apiece. Some of those eight commercials got truly astonishing amounts of media coverage. While an unsuccessful Rubio applied data science to optimize his earned media, Trump is going by gut and guerrilla tactics to optimize his

Meanwhile, the air war to take Trump out is showing no signs of success. Trump isn't just the focus of more negative TV ad spend than any other presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat. According to CMAG's Mitchell West, more money has been spent on TV ads containing anti-Trump messages than on advertising about any other messages tracked by CMAG except for foreign policy/terrorism at #1 and healthcare at #2. After anti-Trump at #3, attacks on President Obama rank #4 in amount of spend; social issues (women's rights, abortion, civil rights, gay marriage, drugs) rank #5.

This line graph by Mitch maps the rapid escalation of anti-Trump TV ad spending since the original Super Tuesday: 

Not helping the cause, the GOP primary has become a delegate hunt. Delegate hunts are hardly made for TV; instead of focusing on passive voters among whom TV can work best, delegate hunts focus on the actively engaged. 

By the way, delegate hunts are also bad for Les Moonves' cause of big overall TV ad spend because the more drawn out the primaries are, the shorter the general election campaign becomes. Not even the most superTuesday can equal in TV ad spend a general election in which two armies - each consisting of candidate, party and amassed outside groups - are pouring everything they've got into 10 or so states every single day. A brokered GOP convention may be great for ratings, but a general election air war that doesn't begin until late July and lasts just over three months is a revenue washout.

But like a candidate who's down for now, TV can bounce back, prove its effectiveness and justify its ongoing lionized share of the ad budget. A nominee Trump almost certainly would need to invest a greater share of his campaign spending in paid media than he has in the primary in order to grow his base and fight off accruing negatives. A nominee Clinton already has proved herself to be a believer in TV. The general election looms for TV advertising as Ohio hangs out there for Trump and #neverTrump: as a potential inflection point, with the jury still out.

CMAG’s Mitchell West contributed hugely to this column.