This year, as in 2016, Democrats have far more money to spend in their campaign against Donald Trump and far more than their Republican counterparts in the states as they seek to retake the Senate. Money may be the “mother’s milk of politics” as a wag described it years ago, but money alone has never been enough to guarantee victory.
It’s not just having money, but spending it wisely with a little luck thrown in that makes the difference something New York Yankee fans could tell you after watching their team driven from the field by the upstart Tampa Bay Rays in this year’s American League Playoffs. The Yankee team payroll was roughly four-and-a-half times that of the team that beat them.
This leads us to the concern of many Trump supporters who even in battleground states see many, many more Biden than Trump broadcast ads, read reports of the money on hand the two candidates have left to spend before Election Day and assume the worst when what they may be witnessing is the result of modern day, sophisticated targeting that wasn’t even possible 40 or 50 years ago.
Ronald Reagan challenged President Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. Ford defeated Reagan in New Hampshire and Florida, and it appeared he would drive the former California governor out of the race in short order. In fact, as the North Carolina primary approached, Ford’s managers were meeting with Reagan campaign leaders it was time for Reagan to step aside to unite the party and avoid humiliation.
Then Reagan beat Ford in North Carolina. There is a lesson in how that happened for today’s candidates. Ford had far more money than his challenger and he spent a lot of it in North Carolina — on the wrong things and in the wrong places. In those days, it was difficult to assemble a list of likely primary voters; the records weren’t computerized. As Reagan’s Southern political director, I had to get volunteers to go to every courthouse in the state to get them. My volunteers had to go through records in the attics of many county courthouses to get the names we needed, but they got them and we those favorable to Reagan to the exclusion of all else.
Ford bought ads instead; a massive television buy targeted at Eastern North Carolina, where then-Sen. Jesse Helms amassed his winning margins. What they neglected to find out was that Helms voters in that part of the state weren’t Republicans, but conservative Democrats who couldn’t vote in the state’s closed Republican primary. There were few if any Republicans in Eastern North Carolina. The money spent there might as well have been piled in the campaign headquarters’ parking lot and burned.
Targeted spending made all the difference.
The technology available to campaigns today makes most broadcast television advertising the least effective way of reaching the voters in terms of cost and effectiveness. It’s like using a shotgun when a rifle would be more appropriate. TV not only costs too much per persuadable voter reached, but turns off rather than attracts those who don’t like the candidate’s message. Forty years ago, all campaigns had was a primitive shotgun; today they have rifles that can get their message to individual voters. That’s why modern campaigns use targeted digital social media messages to reach likely supporters.
Today, campaigns identify the voters they want to go after, craft messages that will appeal to those voters, and target them through social and digital media in ways that weren’t possible in the past. George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016 did as well as they did in part because they knew how to use modern technology. Hillary Clinton had more money in 2016 than any presidential candidate in history, but like Ford, she spent it on the wrong things. Mrs. Clinton spent three times as much money on television ads while he was spending four times as much as her on micro-targeted digital media.
One longtime senator’s tech-savvy manager told me that when the senator last ran for reelection, 60% of his advertising money went to digital ads as compared to 6% six years before. He won, but others have been slow to grasp the value of modern messaging. The average congressional campaign still spends 60% of its advertising money on television ads even though one report found that 80% of those who see them aren’t the least influenced by their message.
Even presidential wannabes can be caught living in the past. Joe Biden has always liked television and no doubt remembers how effective it was back in the day. Earlier this fall, Mr. Biden’s managers, announced the “biggest” advertising buy in political history. They bragged they were going to spend $280 million in mostly “red” states to defeat President Trump but were devoting only $60 million of that amount to social media and digital advertising.
With boatloads of money to spend between now and Election Day, it’s little wonder that pundits unaware of the way campaigns have changed are suggesting that the Trump campaign is doomed, but then they were certain four years ago that a candidate with as much money as Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly lose.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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