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President Donald Trump spent the summer trailing in national polls, losing in swing states and bleeding suburban voters to Joe Biden. His campaign response: doubling down on his base, via his favorite TV channel, Fox News.
While the Trump campaign chopped its TV spending throughout the summer, even going dark on the airwaves on multiple occasions, the campaign maintained a heavy presence on Fox. According to Advertising Analytics, an ad-tracking firm, the Trump campaign spent more money on national ads on Fox News in June, July and August ($9.4 million) than it spent on local broadcast TV in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin ($8.3 million). Trump spent an additional $9.7 million advertising in Pennsylvania, another key state he flipped in 2016, over the same time period.
The focus on Fox has alarmed some Republican strategists who think the campaign has missed an opportunity to spread its message to battleground-state swing voters, who are getting a steady dose of Joe Biden ads. Biden spent $35.3 million on TV in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over the past three months, per Advertising Analytics, though the Democratic nominee only just started advertising in Minnesota.
“I’d be shocked if you don’t see the [Trump] campaign, in these bigger battleground states, doing some level of female demographic messaging in suburban-urban areas, where college-educated women have become such a problem. I think you’re going to see it, but you haven’t seen it so far,” said Nick Everhart, a Republican media consultant.
“So far, it’s all been 20,000-foot, feed red meat to the base … messaging. The Trump campaign has always made driving a narrative to the base a top priority,” Everhart said. “At the end of the day, you can’t build a house if you don’t have a solid foundation, and politically, the GOP base is that foundation for the president.”
Overall, Trump’s summer spending on national Fox News ads — more than 10 percent of the campaign’s total TV budget during that time, and more than the rest of its cable advertising combined — illustrated a strategy focused on the Trump base even as the campaign has talked about targeting swing-voting suburbanites, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen advertising experts and Republican strategists. It reflects Trump’s impulse to focus on friendly groups instead of those who may not have supported him in 2016. And the ad strategy raises additional doubts about whether the free-spending Trump campaign has made efficient use of the hundreds of millions of dollars it raised over the past four years.
Another Republican media strategist questioned the campaign’s approach. The person said Trump needs a bigger presence on entertainment channels in order to capture non-news-watching voters. "News channels are big in Washington, D.C., but are swing voters ... watching news channels?” the strategist said. “To miss out on that audience is pretty large.”
Some note that there are reasons for Trump to maintain a significant presence on Fox News, including spurring donations to the campaign and keeping his base — Trump’s political touchstone — solidly behind him. With the biggest audience on cable, Fox does attract some independent voters in battleground states. And Trump’s digital operation is spending unprecedented sums advertising on online platforms like YouTube, which are becoming a more powerful force for reaching swing voters.
“The data shows that a lot of independents watch Fox News, so the first thing I always do is max out on Fox News,” said Brad Todd, a Republican media consultant. Todd also noted that during the coronavirus pandemic, “a lot of the current entertainment programming is re-runs.”
“Fox News programming is fresh,” Todd said. “Live sports is way down, so the freshest content is on news channels right now.”
But paired with the campaign's on-again, off-again swing-state TV advertising, the expense on national Fox News ads means heavier reliance on outside groups — including America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC — to provide some cover for the campaign’s less diversified TV strategy. Pro-Biden groups spent $156 million on TV compared to $136 million by pro-Trump groups in June, July and August, according to Advertising Analytics.
"The Trump campaign has been in key states across the country for years connecting directly with voters about the successes of President Trump’s America First agenda, and we’ll continue to spread that message and inform the American people about Joe Biden’s destructive, socialist agenda both on the ground and on the airwaves," Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said in a statement.
In August, the Trump campaign said it paused TV spending to review its strategy, after Bill Stepien took over for Brad Parscale as campaign manager. Last month, Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said the campaign was “conserving money right now and focusing a little bit more smartly and a little more effectively on the states that are voting early.”
Now, both Biden and Trump, as well as supportive outside groups, are laying down millions of dollars in new TV buys as Labor Day marks the turn to the fall campaign season. Biden has booked $156 million more (and counting) in ads between now and Election Day, while Trump has $151 million reserved so far. The two campaigns are matched nearly dollar for dollar in broadcast TV ads across a slate of swing states.
The GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies wrote in 2019 that more than half of Fox News’ audience self-identified as Republican or conservative. People who use Fox News as their main news source were three times more likely than the average American adult to say that Trump’s coronavirus response was excellent, the Pew Research Center found earlier this year. And while Trump’s approval rating in a May 2019 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll stood at 46 percent, the president’s rating was 73 percent among Fox News viewers.
The Trump campaign “keeps talking about their intensity level with their base, but they’re clearly paying for it,” said another Republican strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “To what degree are they paying for that intensity level to the detriment of a swing audience?”
The Biden campaign’s cable advertising has been more diverse. He spent $2.3 million on national CNN buys and $1.8 million on Fox News over the last three months, according to Advertising Analytics. But more than two-thirds of the Democratic nominee’s cable buys have been targeted to local markets, whereas Biden’s campaign is running specific ads hitting local issues or certain segments of the population.
“The Biden campaign is running an Obama 2012-type campaign, utilizing hyper-targeted messaging runs on cable, drilling down to specific states and regions, versus running message progressions at a macro-level,” Everhart said.
Examples of the strategy include ads in Ohio and North Carolina, employment hubs for Goodyear, after Trump condemned the company over its diversity training. Biden ads on seniors handling the coronavirus pandemic have run specifically in Florida, including in the Villages, the massive retirement community.
After the 2012 campaign, analysts took note of the Obama campaign’s cable strategy and predicted it would be a must-have feature of future campaigns. But Trump has spent little on local cable — less than 10 percent of the $18.3 million his campaign spent on cable in June, July and August. And a chunk of what Trump has spent on local cable aired in Washington, D.C., far from voters in the most important 2020 swing states.
The Trump campaign may be relying on its digital advertising to do the work of specifically targeting key battleground state voters. Trump’s campaign is spending far more than Biden online, and the strategy would partially mimic the president’s 2016 campaign, when he was outspent on TV but made up for it with non-stop coverage from the news media and a robust digital advertising campaign.
“Their strategy on digital is diversified, and they’re going after all the audiences they need, including suburban women, younger voters, independents,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “They’re certainly doing a lot of list building. But a lot of persuasion work is going to important audiences, too."