Ad mix expands as race tightens

The presidential campaign is entering the final stretch and marketing dollars take on added importance

With 64 days to go to election day, this is usually the time when the presidential campaign gets as hot as this past weekend’s backyard Labor Day grills across the country.

But up to now we’ve seen a significant drop-off in ad spending – as much as 60 per cent compared with the last cycle in 2012 – in part because of Donald Trump’s strategy of relying on “free media” and in part because money is being spent on down-ballot races for the Senate.

That is expected to change in the final two months as political marketers seek to press home their case across the marketing mix. The Wall Street Journal reports on how Trump consultant Brad Parscale – managing his first presidential race – has been shifting the campaign’s focus to web ads.

The Journal writes: “His techniques include using square video ads that have video and text that take advantage of Facebook’s auto-play feature. The text plays with the video, so that even if Facebook users don’t have the sound on, they can still see what the video is saying. The square shape also takes up more space on a mobile screen than the usual rectangle size.”

And some observers believe one of the legacies of the Trump campaign – win or lose – will be to help realign campaign priorities from TV to digital.

Political football

As for existing TV showpieces, the NFL is preparing to kick off amid an ongoing national debate about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice.

With the opening weekend also coinciding with commemoration of September 11, this season is likely to be more of a political scrimmage than usual.

Politico reports that the Clinton campaign expects the start of the NFL season “to coincide with an onslaught of negative Trump ads during [the flagship broadcast] Monday Night Football” as the GOP candidate sees the audience as a more resonant match for his target demographic.

According to The Hill the Clinton camp has over recent weeks attempted to “bury Trump in negative ads” as a way of defining her opponent, but that approach hasn’t opened up the sort of polling gap between the candidates that she might like.

Campaign reports that Clinton’s ad strategy is “running circles” around Trump’s and certainly her TV spots have been slick and effective.

An ad titled “Just One” has been described as her version of the iconic 1964 LBJ “Daisy Girl”, and forms part of an $80m fall ad buy in key states.

(On the subject of the 1964 campaign, by the way, of which there are many echoes, Josh Zeitz has an interesting piece in Politico about LBJ’s “frontlash” strategy against Barry Goldwater and its parallels this year.)

But the Clinton team is well aware that Trump’s ability to dominate successive news cycles and continue to score free media without making conventional campaign investments means that her significant financial dominance hasn’t had a feed-through effect on opinion polls, which – in spite of their intrinsically unpredictable nature – show the race tightening.

Basically, unlike an NFL quarterback, Hillary can’t run out the clock. And Trump certainly seized the media spotlight this past week with a surprise trip to Mexico – to meet with a leader who has even worse ratings than he does – followed by an incendiary rally in Arizona later the same day. Hammering on his immigration message, it prompted the Clinton campaign to call it his “darkest speech” yet and the Mexico trip an “embarrassing international incident.”

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While Trump’s speech may have struck a chord with those on the right such as Ann Coulter and David Duke – who had wanted a clear re-statement of his approach – whether it helped expand his base remains to be seen. Either way, he’s poised to do it again tonight (Tuesday) with another immigration-focused speech in Greenville, North Carolina.

The first pro-Trump general election ad – from the campaign as opposed to from a PAC – emphasised the security and immigration issue.

The second in the “Two Americas” series is focused on the economy and, as Politico reports, is set to run in nine states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, Virginia and Colorado. In 2012, Politico adds, Mitt Romney lost eight of those states.

The past few weeks have seen considerable turbulence at the top of the Trump campaign, as it tried to right the ship following some rocky moments.

In a speech that Politico called “one of the most comprehensive, on-message rationales for his candidacy to date,” Trump expressed his – non-specific – “regret” for any hurt he may have caused through a “failure to choose the right words”.

Clinton’s ad in response, though, reminded voters that Trump had plenty to apologise for.

John Cassidy in the New Yorker, meanwhile, wrote that there is no “new Trump, just old Trump who has read the polls.”

Strategic shake-up

The speech was followed by the removal of campaign manager Paul Manafort and the installation of Breitbart boss Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to take charge of a Republican presidential campaign. The remake at the top continued with the addition of long-time Clinton opponent and Citizens United advocate David Bossie.

Despite a previous sense that, as the Washington Post put it, the campaign had been “going feral”, there appears to be a greater degree of coordinated strategic organisation beginning to be applied, with Politico reporting that RNC chief strategist and communications director Sean Spicer is now working mainly out of Trump Tower.

The importance of the relationship between the campaign and the RNC is reflected in the key nature of this year’s down-ballot races, and with the possibility that the Democrats might regain control of the Senate, it’s perhaps not surprising – as we mentioned earlier – that spending on senatorial campaign ads has been higher than on the presidential contest.

The decline in presidential campaign ads is also having an effect on local broadcasters, while, perhaps strangely with immigration such a hot topic, exclusively Spanish language ads have been largely conspicuous by their absence.

This week sees a televised “Commander-in-Chief Forum” in which the candidates will be interviewed back to back. It’s partly a dry run for the three presidential debates, which begin on September 26.

Whether a third party candidate – either the Greens’ Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson – might feature in the debate is still up for grabs. Johnson’s latest ad puts his argument pretty succinctly.

But already talk is turning to what happens after election day, with part of Trump’s ongoing message laying the groundwork for a possible defeat by attempting to de-legitimise the election. Only 11 per cent of Trump supporters now say they are “highly confident” of an accurate vote.

As for Trump himself, there has been much speculation – particularly in light of the folks now advising him – that he is preparing to launch his own TV channel or media organisation in order to extend his brand and harness the grassroots fervour his campaign has galvanised.

NBC quotes former CNN executive Jon Klein thus:

“Losing in November would be the best thing that could happen [for Trump], from a business standpoint. It would only increase the passion of his most hard-core supporters, and it would give them a juicy target to rail against for the next four years.”

FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.

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