Over the past week, two ads have blanketed the television airwaves, introducing Americans to Democrats’ newest presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. From Saturday, November 23 through Sunday, December 1, those ads aired 19,006 times for an estimated $23.7 million, according to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group.
During that same time frame, all the other Democratic presidential candidates’ ads aired a combined 10,337 times, costing an estimated $7.6 million. In fact, in just over a week, Bloomberg spent more than one-third of what the rest of the Democratic field has spent all year long. Only fellow billionaire-turned-candidate Tom Steyer has spent more than Bloomberg.
Eye-popping though it was, Bloomberg’s ad buy still fell well short of constituting the biggest weeklong TV ad buy in the history of presidential campaigns. According to CMAG, that record still belongs to Hillary Clinton, who aired 52,997 spots for an estimated $33.7 million (in 2016 dollars — today that would be about $36 million) in the final week of the 2016 campaign. Bloomberg also doesn’t even crack the top 10 in terms of most ad airings by a candidate in a single week. Then-President Barack Obama alone had eight weeks in the 2012 cycle when his ads ran at least 26,000 times.
That said, Bloomberg’s buy still represents the most prolific week of political television advertising so far in the 2020 cycle. And according to CMAG, it probably is the most money any candidate has ever spent on TV in a single week in a primary election. Simply put, we have no idea how Bloomberg’s spending will affect the primary because we have no precedent for it.
Also unusual is where Bloomberg is airing his ads. In keeping with his plan not to contest the first four states on the primary calendar, he’s only aired 151 spots so far in media markets based in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina.1 Instead, his ads have aired most often in Florida (1,796 times), California (1,753 times) and Texas (1,326 times). It is probably not a coincidence that those are also the three most delegate-rich states with March primaries. In case it wasn’t already clear, it looks like Bloomberg’s plan is to dwarf other candidates’ early-state delegate hauls by doing well on Super Tuesday and beyond.
It’s worth remembering, however, that presidential campaigns aren’t decided, or even predominantly waged, on TV. Political scientists who have studied the question have found that television advertising has only modest effects on people’s vote choice. Heavy campaign spending also yields diminishing returns; Bloomberg may rise, say, 5 points in the polls after last week, but if he spent another $23.7 million next week, it might not buy him another 5 points, as his ads may have reached everyone they are going to reach (and voters who saw them but still don’t support Bloomberg may be hard to pry away from their current candidate choice). Finally, researchers have persistently found that the effect of political TV advertising is short-lived — so any polling bump Bloomberg gets today may not matter if it doesn’t survive until the primaries. Perhaps the real question is whether Bloomberg is planning on, or is even capable of, sustaining this level of spending for the next three months. Keep an eye on our TV ad tracker to find out.