Trump's Not Just Losing — His Ad Strategy Looks Misguided

This article was originally published at nbcnews.com on July 6, 2020.

If November's election were held this week, polling averages suggest Joe Biden would sweep President Trump in all six states Trump carried by less than five points in 2016: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden is also running highly competitively in the four states Trump carried by five to ten points last time: Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas. 

That would amount to a Biden landslide of a magnitude of between 334 and 413 Electoral votes (270 are required to win). But to make matters even worse for Trump, his campaign's early ad spending moves lack discipline.

In June 2016, Hillary Clinton's campaign and an allied Super PAC made a costly strategic error when they failed to include Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin in their initial $137 million ad reservations. The Clinton campaign eventually took to the Pennsylvania airwaves, but it ended up spending more in its "reach" states of Arizona and Georgia — playing for an Electoral College blowout — than in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states that narrowly helped tip the election to Trump.

The Clinton campaign's early calculations were based more on history — a GOP nominee hadn't won Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin since 1988 — than on current trends at the time. Although Republicans had carried Colorado and Virginia as recently as 2004, those diverse, highly professional states had been moving towards Democrats while populist candidates and movements, including Brexit, had been gaining steam in blue-collar, deindustrializing former bastions of the left.

This time, it's the Trump campaign that might be squandering some of its initial financial advantages by misreading the Electoral map. So far, it's laid out millions to play defense in Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia - states that may be close today, but are ultimately unlikely to be decisive in the battle for 270 Electoral College votes.

Last week, the Trump campaign last week pre-booked $99.7 million worth of fall advertising, with the plurality — $37.5 million — going to Florida. To be sure, there will be many more buys to come. But the $18.4 million it laid out in Ohio, a state Trump carried by eight points in 2016, exceeded the costs of its buys in the true battlegrounds of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Michigan.



By contrast, the Biden campaign's first general election TV foray is squarely focused on the six states closest to the "tipping point" of the Electoral College — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — even though polls show him well ahead in all of those states today.

In light of polls showing Biden a threat elsewhere, it's understandable Trump's team would be tempted to "put out fires" in red states. But what Trump's campaign might not grasp is that in the modern polarized era of American elections, TV ads only move numbers on the margins and individual states don't move independently so much as demographic groups do. 

Ohio is demographically similar to Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania: it has an aging, large blue-collar white population, a modest Black population and a relatively low Latino share. But Ohio voted for Trump by seven to eight points more than the other three states. If Biden is ultimately competitive in Ohio come November, he'll have already won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and almost certainly the presidency — rendering Ohio irrelevant. 

Trump still has a path to victory, and it's still possible he could win reelection while losing the popular vote by an even wider margin than in 2016, perhaps as many as 5 million votes. But even that would require either a truly national upturn in voters' attitudes towards him and his handling of the nation's crises or a nosedive in attitudes towards Biden, or both. Trump diverting millions to play whack-a-mole in states that voted for him handily last time probably won't cut it.