WASHINGTON — Call it the Trump Effect.
Every four years, spending in presidential races soars to new heights. Until now.
A new estimate from the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics predicts the final price tag of the 2016 White House campaign will hit about $2.65 billion, a dip from the $2.76 billion that flowed into the 2012 contest, when adjusted for inflation.
Broadcast TV advertising to shape the 2016 White House contest has tumbled from four years ago, a byproduct of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s decision to rely more on free media coverage, digital outreach and his own prolific tweeting than traditional advertising to promote his candidacy.
Between June 8 and Oct. 30, for instance, Trump had aired more than 68,000 ads to boost his White House ambitions, a striking drop from the roughly 182,000 ads that 2012 Republican presidential Mitt Romney aired on broadcast TV, national networks and national cable during the same period in that election, an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project shows.
“It’s just apples and oranges to compare Trump to any other major-party nominee,” said Shelia Krumholz, who runs the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. “It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could take this playbook and make it work.”
Trump’s approach already has taken a toll. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which controls 173 TV stations and has a big footprint in the battleground state of Ohio, earlier this year lowered revenue forecasts for the third quarter. Officials cited the presidential election’s “unique nature” as one reason for the move.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 2016 election could have been a banner year for political advertising, with a wide-open White House race in which neither a sitting president nor vice president was running for the job. The lower presidential spending “has depressed revenues and, therefore, depressed profits in what’s normally one of the better years in a four-year cycle for local TV companies, especially,” said Jan Dawson, who analyzes consumer technology and media at Jackdaw Research.
Instead of surging to new highs, overall political spending on broadcast TV is likely to be flat, said Steve Lanzano, president and CEO of The Television Bureau of Advertising, the trade group for local TV broadcasters.
"It's not like the dollars went away," he said. Instead, money flowed into ballot initiatives and down-ticket races for the House and Senate, where Republicans are scrambling to retain their majorities.
"It's a year that's an anomaly," Lanzano said, insisting "it's not a referendum" on television advertising or its effectiveness.
Democrat Hillary Clinton and groups aligned with her also have run fewer general-election ads than President Obama and his allies did in 2012, according to Wesleyan Media Project’s tally. But Team Clinton held a staggering 3-to-1 advantage in general-election advertising over the Trump camp through the end of last month, the researchers found.
Clinton's campaign also shifted more spending to a particular segment of television advertising: local cable. Those buys allow candidates to target small pockets of cable viewers, say, people watching the Golf Channel in the Philadelphia area.