With war chests, candidates can support local news
Viewers tune them out; voters hate them; and researchers call them ineffective. But attack ads continue chewing up airtime as the slow march to Election Day becomes a six-week sprint.
Campaigns and political action committees are projected to pump $6.7 billion into ad buys during the 2020 election cycle, according to an Advertising Analytics and Cross Screen Media report. Broadcast television, cable and radio commercials will claim the largest share, roughly $4.9 billion.
It's not just Joe Biden and Donald Trump. While the presidential race will account for roughly a third of all political advertising this year, congressional campaigns are expected to cost $2 billion. State and local races will pitch in tens of millions more.
Spending those stratospheric sums is a crapshoot, not a careful investment. The prevailing wisdom on political advertising is that it can further entrench supporters and opponents, but it isn't likely to sway many undecided voters.
A meta-analysis published this month in the Science Advances journal provides little for D.C. spin doctors to cheer. The article headline? "The small effects of political advertising are small regardless of context, message, sender, or receiver: Evidence from 59 real-time randomized experiments."
The spending spree will continue no matter how dismal the results. Campaign advertising is an arms race, and no candidate wants to be outgunned.
As long as incumbents and challengers are trapped in an endless cycle of fundraising and media buys, however, politicians can make their war chests work wonders for democracy by placing ads in their local newspaper.
More than a quarter of U.S. newspapers operating in 2005 have closed their doors, according to University of North Carolina professor Penelope Muse Abernathy's research. Cratering ad revenues caused by the decline of brick-and-mortar retail and the rise of programmatic digital advertising have starved about 2,100 papers out of existence.
Closures and layoffs slashed the number of newsroom employees from 71,000 in 2008 to 35,000 last year, according to Pew Research Center figures, and the coronavirus pandemic is inflicting further carnage. Businesses ordered to shut down or operate at reduced capacity in the interest of public health have zeroed out their advertising budgets to make payroll.
COVID-19 could be "an extinction-level event" for local newspapers, Abernathy warns. An infusion of campaign advertising may be enough to keep some struggling publications afloat.