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Why Biden's Early Ad Strategy Makes Sense
The Biden Campaign's decision to spend money on early is ads is the sign of a campaign that understands the new media environment.
There was a story in the Sunday Washington Post regarding the Biden campaign’s advertising strategy. This article sparked a conversation online and in the group chats of Democratic activists and operatives:
The Biden campaign has drawn up options for expanding its unconventional $25 million early advertising effort this year, as the president continues to express frustration in private conversations about the state of his polling in battleground states, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Other than the general reactionary panic endemic among most Democrats these days, there were several questions and concerns raised about the Biden campaign’s decision to double down on a strategy of spending significant money on ads while the polls remain stagnant. Nationally and in the swing states, public polling shows that Biden is no better off in his approval rating or head to head matchups with Trump than before the ads started.
Public polling is often (but not always) less precise and sophisticated than the polls used by campaigns. Therefore, they may miss something that the campaign is seeing. However, the Biden sources quoted in this story essentially admit that there hasn’t been any significant movement in the polls.
The ads run to date are quite expensive and are paid for with “hard dollars” raised in increments of up to $3,300 per donor. So, is the Biden campaign making a mistake by doubling down?
Are the Ads a Waste If the Polls Don’t Move?
It takes time to move people’s opinions about well known figures. This has always been true, but it is particularly true right now for two reasons. First, we are living in a time of high polarization, a time when people’s opinions about political matters and figures are very sticky. Second, it’s never been more difficult to grab the public’s attention. There are infinite options of what to watch via streaming or on TV and an endless barrage of content on our phones via Instagram and TikTok. It takes more than one speech, one big event, or even tens of millions of dollars in ads to move numbers. Additionally, there is a sequence in moving the poll numbers in a presidential campaign. This sequence allows voters to develop a deep well of knowledge about the candidates.
Character trait polling questions are always the first to move. Some examples of these measurements include:
Are they strong leaders?
Are they honest?
Do they fight for people like you?
When Barack Obama was losing to a generic Republican at this point in 2011, our initial wave of messaging was designed to convince people that Obama was “focused on fixing the economy.” Once that number moved, everything fell into place; his approval rating went up and he took the lead in head to head matchups.
The Biden folks have isolated a series of measures that they need to improve to boost his approval rating and matchups against Trump. They must be seeing improvement on those measures, otherwise I doubt they would be spending more resources.
This is a long campaign. We are in the early stages. It would be unusual to see real movement at this point for someone like Biden since 100 percent of Americans have an opinion on him.
Are Early Ads a Good Strategy?
There is a question raised by several anonymous Democrat aides in the Washington Post story: are the messages of the Biden campaign’s economic ads too rosy given how negative most Americans are on the state of the economy? I have the sense that Democrats at large are missing something in our economic messaging, but I haven’t seen enough data to make a truly informed judgment. However, Biden’s campaign isn’t just throwing these ads against the wall to see what sticks. A sophisticated Presidential campaign tests every ad before investing a single dollar.
The more interesting and relevant question is about the strategy itself framed in the story:
At the heart of the Democratic conflict over Biden’s strategy is a debate over how much the traditional blueprint for presidential campaigns needs to change and what is the best way for Biden to sell his accomplishments in office without alienating voters who remain dissatisfied with the economy, unaware of his accomplishments and wary of his running for reelection.
In other words, are early ads a good strategy? I hold strong views on this question. In this media environment, early ads aren’t just a good strategy, they are the only strategy.
Earlier in this post, I compared Biden’s situation now to Obama’s at the same juncture in his reelection campaign. Like Biden, Obama engaged in a major messaging push in the fall of the year before the election. But there was one big difference. Obama’s was entirely through the earned media. He gave a nationally televised address, participated in a series of high profile interviews, and barnstormed the country with events that garnered significant local media coverage. Our campaign didn’t run digital or television ads because we didn’t have to. In 2011, you could still reach voters at scale through the traditional or free press. In the ensuing 12 years, the reach and credibility of the traditional media has plummeted and can no longer be the centerpiece of an effective messaging campaign.
While campaigns are always resource constrained (ads cost money), they would ideally communicate with paid digital and TV ads 24-7-365. When you are not advertising, you are forgotten by large segments of the public. The voters who decide elections typically consume less political news than people like you and me; and the young voters who make up the Democratic base don’t get their news from the traditional sources that cover politics on a daily basis. For these cohorts, a White House press conference or a CNN townhall might as well have not happened.
In the past, campaigns could afford not to advertise continuously because an effective free media strategy could keep you afloat until the campaign went up a few months before the election. In this era, if you want to tell people things, you have to pay for it. Major brands are always on the air because they cannot subsist on public relations alone. They worry about what will happen if they are not front of mind when a potential customer goes into the store or logs onto the Internet. Politicians need to start thinking the same way when developing a campaign strategy and budget. The Biden campaign was right to start ads early and I hope they keep them up till the end.