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Political Ad Nauseam

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So as you may be aware, there is a presidential election coming up in a few weeks. And the campaigns of the two candidates are moving a lot of money around right now to try to win that election.


Yeah, we got reports of President Trump pulling millions of dollars out of Ohio and Iowa and then Joe Biden throwing another million at Minnesota and then Trump putting money back into Ohio and Iowa. And for a person, these are life-changing amounts of money. But for a presidential campaign, it's nothing. These are just tiny tactical moves on the edges of a much, much bigger thing.

ROMER: Between the official campaigns and the super PACs, political action committees, by Election Day, the advertising spend for the presidential general election is expected to be a billion dollars - a billion dollars for ads.

MALONE: And the presidential campaigns are not just spending all that money willy-nilly. They've got these very sophisticated models of the entire American electorate, models that try to answer the question of how you can turn all of those dollars into a win on Election Day. And, you know, we're nosy reporters. We wanted to take a peek at those models.

ROMER: So we asked the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign, hey, will you just, like, shoot us over your fancy strategy spreadsheets?

MALONE: Yeah, you know, cc us on your internal emails.

ROMER: But, as it happens, they are quite secretive about this stuff.

MALONE: Yeah. So what we ended up having to do is sort of slide our finger down the list of major political advertisers until we found somebody who would talk to us.

DANIELLE BUTTERFIELD: My name is Danielle Butterfield, and I'm the paid media director at Priorities USA, which is a Democratic super PAC engaging in the 2020 election.

MALONE: After the Biden campaign itself, Priorities is the biggest political advertiser on the left.

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, we'll spend over 200 million this cycle.

ROMER: On just the presidential election or on all the elections?

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, on just the presidential.

MALONE: Now, this 200 million is not being spent evenly across the country. And so the thing we wanted to know was who specifically is the person being targeted by the campaigns? Like, what kind of person is having the most amount of money spent on them?

ROMER: If we were to look at the whole universe of presidential spending by the campaigns, by outside groups, what does your gut say the most expensive voters in the country would be in terms of advertising spend? Where do you think they would be?

BUTTERFIELD: I can see where they are (laughter). It's quantifiable. They're...

ROMER: Can you open that spreadsheet and read off the top three names?

BUTTERFIELD: (Laughter) I don't have that in front of me. I lied. But it is quantifiable. It is knowable. I feel like I'm not answering your question, though.

ROMER: Because she would not answer my question. Is the most expensive voter quantifiable? Yes. Measurable? Yes. Shareable? Not so much.


ROMER: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Keith Romer.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. We may not be allowed to look at the campaign's secret spreadsheets, but we are not going to let that deter us. Today on the show, we try to find the most expensive voters in the country, the people the campaigns spend the most to reach.

ROMER: You want to find out who these two campaigns think hold the key to becoming the next president of the United States? All you have to do is follow the ad money.

MALONE: OK, Bob Woodward.


ROMER: As much as campaigns want to keep spending secret, federal law actually requires TV stations around the country to disclose all the political ads the campaigns buy. And those TV ads account for something in the ballpark of 60% of campaign ad spending.

MALONE: A lot of the rest is stuff like Google and Facebook ads. And those companies actually don't have to disclose as much information about the ads. So today we're going to focus on TV spending, the majority of the spending.

ROMER: So think of the United States as a giant game board. Two campaigns walk around the board. They put some of their ad money down on this part of the country, a little bit more over here. And the way they put that money down tells us what places they think are most important for winning the election. If you're looking just at the state level, the bronze medal goes to Wisconsin - $64 million worth of TV ads there.

MALONE: Not surprising, Wisconsin was one of those states that Trump flipped from the Democratic column back in 2016.

ROMER: Silver medal - Pennsylvania, with $107 million worth of TV ads.

MALONE: Also not surprising - a purple state with 20 electoral votes.

ROMER: And in first place with $133 million, America's favorite election meltdown waiting to happen.

MALONE: Oh, Florida - my beloved Florida.

ROMER: Now, this is just our beginning calculation. We're going to dig in more. But there are lessons to learn just looking at the big picture, the big campaign game board.

MALONE: Yeah. So take Florida. This is not a monolithic place. You're going to have super Republican areas, like the panhandle, and then big Democratic areas around places like Miami. And you might imagine that the most cost-effective thing is for the Republicans to completely pull out of the Democratic strongholds and vice versa. But, in fact, neither political party is doing that. The whole state is getting bombarded with ads from both sides.

ROMER: Danielle Butterfield from the super PAC Priorities USA, she says it can start to turn into something like an arms race.

BUTTERFIELD: So when you see your opponent spending money in a market, it really raises the question of, well, should I be spending money there, too, to keep that area competitive?

ROMER: And if you want to understand why political spending just keeps going up, it's at least partly because of this arms race. If your opponent spends more in Tampa, you have to spend more in Tampa, which in turn makes the cost of ads in Tampa that much more expensive.

MALONE: Next thing you know, you just blew $133 million in Florida.

ROMER: Danielle says the arms race thing is not just irrational fear. There's a real electoral cost to waving the white flag in a particular area.

MALONE: Yeah. If you're in an ad market and your opponent clears out, that is great news for you.

BUTTERFIELD: You have the airwaves to yourself. Your advertising goes a lot further in terms of impact than if you have two opponents that are kind of driving opposite messages.

ROMER: Is there, like, a particular tipping point that sort of campaign folks are like, you got to spend the 20%, otherwise - like, what counts as not being drowned out?

BUTTERFIELD: Good - yeah, there is actually a lot of - there is some data behind, like, what is the particular percentage that is required. I'd say that's probably more of a secret sauce that I wouldn't necessarily want to name on this podcast.

ROMER: But you know that number. You're just not going to tell me.

BUTTERFIELD: I know roughly what percentage I think is useful.

ROMER: Is it 23%?

BUTTERFIELD: (Laughter) You got it.

MALONE: But OK, so fine, lots of money being spent in Florida. But this is not a very specific answer to our question, who is the most expensive voter? We wanted to be more granular, which is why we got our hands on a more precise dataset.

ROMER: Thank you, Advertising Analytics.

MALONE: This dataset is going to let us zoom in on every single television market in the entire country. So, for example, we know that $40 million has been spent in the Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne market.

ROMER: Compare that to the Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Mich., market, where it's $12 million. And sure, there's more people in Orlando. But still, how are the campaigns arriving at exactly 40 million and exactly 12 million? To help answer that, we brought in some help.

MICHAEL BEACH: I'm Michael Beach, CEO of Cross Screen Media.

MALONE: Michael runs an advertising analytics company now, but he has worked in the past for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney.

ROMER: And the reason we wanted to talk to Michael is his whole job now is to figure out where companies, or sometimes political campaigns, should place millions of dollars' worth of ads. Michael has all this fancy proprietary software. If you're an advertiser, he can tell you whether you should be focusing your ads on, like, Republicans with minivans or Democrats who ride motorcycles or neither. He's got all these different attributes in his computer.

BEACH: Thousands of attributes for, you know, anything from certain partisanship to likelihood to buy a Ford truck, right?

ROMER: And do those two specific categories correlate?

BEACH: Yes and no. Like, it's pretty geographic. If you're, like, looking at northeast Ohio or you're - you know, you're in Alabama on the Senate race, like, it - that wouldn't be a very - probably a good signal - right? - 'cause, like, I can say this as a truck owner, you know, everyone drives trucks right there (laughter).

MALONE: Now, the reason we went to Michael is because we thought it might be interesting to look at how many dollars were being spent on any given swing voter. Swing voters, in theory, are people who might be influenced by a political ad.

ROMER: The problem is it is very hard to pin down exactly how many of these people are out there. But Michael's software can at least take a stab at it.

MALONE: What it's going to do is go through all these datasets to first identify how many likely voters there are in a particular TV market and then identify which of those has even the tiniest probability of changing their vote.

ROMER: And a lot of this calculation is just sifting out the diehards. If you are somebody who voted in the last five Democratic primaries, or every year you donate to the RNC, you are out. But maybe your party affiliation has switched a couple of times. Maybe you're a first-time voter. That may put you in the swing bucket.

BEACH: Yeah, it's basically using - it's called a generic party model. And generic just means it's party and not candidate-driven.

MALONE: In other words, we're estimating voters' chances to swing between Democrat and Republican as opposed to Trump and Biden specifically. But this still does give us a way to compare across TV markets.

ROMER: And when you rerank the country based on dollars spent per swing voter, the top markets are not in Florida. In fact, the top five ad markets are all in Pennsylvania.

MALONE: And No. 1 on that list, where campaigns are spending around $90 per likely swing voter, is my home television market, the region in western Pennsylvania in and around Erie, Pa.

ROMER: OK. So, Kenny, you grew up there.


ROMER: Like, what is it? What is Erie? What are we talking about?

MALONE: Just to be clear, I grew up in Meadville, which is south of Erie, but it's in the market. And, like, yeah, this is a region with a lot of manufacturing jobs. A lot of these jobs have been leaving. It's predominantly white. It's having the same kind of brain drain problem that a lot of the other parts of the so-called Rust Belt are having.

But, look; like, I don't know anything about who a potential swing voter would be in the Erie television market. This is why we have Michael's fancy software. It can help us understand who that is.

ROMER: What can we know about the Erie market area? How does it compare to the rest of the country? Like, who's there?

BEACH: Let me open up my magic machine here.

ROMER: Michael punches in Erie, plugs in a few numbers.

BEACH: All right, so it's running.

ROMER: Then he opens up a tab that lets us compare the Erie population as a whole to just the likely swing voters.

BEACH: So now I look at in Erie, for instance, so the average adult is 53 years old if you just take the whole population of the market. The target audience, if you said swing and likely to turn out, is 47.

MALONE: In other words, Michael's machine is telling us that the average swing voter is six years younger than the average. They're 47 years old. And the other incredible thing about Michael's machine is that it's also able to spit out this whole media plan for how to reach those people.

ROMER: The machine can name the single TV show watched by the most swing voters each week. That show in the Erie area is "The OT" on Fox. It's a football show. It's a wrapup of the day's games.

MALONE: Now, to be fair, that is one of the most watched shows in the entire country. But the numbers do show that in terms of efficiency, sports would be a pretty good way to get your ad in front of a decent chunk of swing voters in Erie, Pa.

BEACH: ESPN - you can reach 16% of people in Erie in a week. And again, that's this target in this market.

MALONE: If the secret to understanding what the campaigns are thinking is to learn where the most money is being spent per swing voter, that place is Erie, Pa.

ROMER: Unless it's actually more complicated than that.


ROMER: Of course it is. After the break, we figure out what a political ad is really supposed to do, and that takes us to the last stop on our search for America's most expensive voter.


ROMER: So up to this point, we've been thinking about the question of who is the most expensive voter only in terms of swing voters. But political campaigns divide up the electorate in much more sophisticated ways. To try to understand what they're up to, we called up one last expert.

RAYID GHANI: Yeah, I'm Rayid Ghani, and I'm a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the Machine Learning Department and the school of public policy.

ROMER: Back in 2012, Rayid was the chief data scientist for the Obama campaign, and a lot of his job was trying to think about the best way to quantify everything that the campaign knew or could know about the people they were trying to get to vote.

GHANI: For every registered voter in the U.S. across different states, we have historical data that's called a voter file.

ROMER: And because campaigns are able to keep track of all the ways that you've interacted with that campaign, the voter file has a fair amount of specificity to it. It might have your name, your address, what primaries you voted in and this number.

GHANI: Every voter gets a score. Let's say if you're in the Biden campaign, every voter most likely has a score from zero to 100. And 100 is definitely supporting Biden. Zero is definitely supporting Trump.

ROMER: The score comes from how you voted in the past, what you said to the doorknocker who came to your house in 2016.

MALONE: If you donated money to Obama, your likelihood to vote for Biden score goes up. Volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign - your Biden score also goes up.

ROMER: And if for some reason the campaigns don't have all that information about you, Rayid says they can still usually do a pretty good job of predicting how you're going to vote by modeling you based on your age, your race, where you live.

GHANI: You know, as much as we all think we're all very special, we're all very similar to people that are - you know, our behaviors are similar.

MALONE: Rayid says that in addition to the score you get for how likely you are to support a candidate, you get a second score that is hugely important to the campaigns. It is a turnout score - how likely you are to actually go out and vote.

ROMER: And the turnout score is super important to a candidate's chances because you can have millions of diehard supporters, but if they do not turn out to vote for you, you are not going to win.

MALONE: So, yes, there are ads that are trying to convince voters to change their vote from one candidate to another. These are called persuasion ads. They tend to be kind of, like, centrist-y and reasonable-sounding.

ROMER: But there are also what are called mobilization ads. Like, these are the red meat ads designed to motivate the base to turn out and vote.

MALONE: And then there is a third kind of ad that once I learned about it made me even more cynical about political advertising. These are demobilization ads. The entire purpose is to target your opponent's base, make them so fed up with the entire train wreck of partisan politics that maybe they will just sit this election out. They will not vote.

ROMER: And to be clear, the lines between these different kinds of ads - it's not absolute. One person's mobilization ad is another person's demobilization ad.

MALONE: But what all of this means is that ads are not just targeted at those, like, swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum. They're targeted at everyone. And so we ran our numbers one last time, this time focusing not just on the swing voters, but on all voters - the voters campaigns are trying to get to switch sides or mobilize to vote or convince not to vote, all of them.

ROMER: And when you look at the cost per voter, instead of just cost per swing voter, the most expensive voters are not in Florida. They're not in Pennsylvania. They are in Wisconsin.

KELLY: Wausau's a nice Midwestern community - about 39,000 people. It's very middle class. It's a nice place to raise a family.

MALONE: This is a software engineer named Kelly. He lives in Wausau, Wis. And that is our answer - the television market around Wausau. And in that market, campaigns are spending almost $40 per likely voter. And Kelly says you can see it everywhere - all Biden, all Trump, all the time.

KELLY: If you're on TV, if you're on the radio, if you're on Facebook, it's pretty inescapable.

ROMER: Kelly didn't want us to use his last name because he says politics in Wausau has become a really touchy subject.

KELLY: People have very strong views - very, very strong views.

ROMER: I actually had a hard time finding people in Wausau who would let me record our conversations. There was a Trump supporter who ran a diner. She said someone had come in and yelled at her for the signs she had out in front of the restaurant. A different woman, a seamstress, said that she didn't want to lose all her customers by publicly saying she was going to support Joe Biden.

MALONE: Kelly says the energy around Wausau has just shifted in this perceptible way.

KELLY: Just the acrimony, the neighbor-to-neighbor, you know, fighting. You see a lot where somebody in the middle of a street will put up a big Trump sign in their yard, and then the neighbor across the street will do the exact same thing the next day but for Biden. I've been through many presidential elections here. This is the worst I've seen it by a factor of five.

ROMER: When we first gave ourselves this project to figure out where the campaigns were spending the most money, we figured what we would find were voters were mostly just annoyed by all the noise. But what I heard from Kelly and the other voters in Wausau was something darker than that.

KELLY: The ads are really - especially from the Trump side, they're very almost apocalyptic. Like, there's a big ad from Kenosha, and it's, you know, burned-out car lots and people rioting in the streets. And it's a mom who lives in Kenosha, and she's saying, I don't want the rest of the state to experience what we've experienced.

MALONE: So what is it like to be one of the most expensive voters in the country? You are bombarded by persuasion ads, mobilization ads, demobilization ads. And Kelly says the sum total of this is just moving people deeper and deeper into their political corners.

KELLY: Even with friends, you know, you don't really want to bring that stuff up because it's just going to lead to arguing. And you don't want to stir up things where things don't need to be stirred up, you know?

ROMER: What does a billion dollars in ad money buy you? Maybe some changed minds, maybe some votes you wouldn't otherwise have gotten, but also maybe a country that is even more divided than before the campaign ever started.


ROMER: Thinking about spending a billion dollars to influence the direction of the country? Let us know. Send us an email at We are also on all the social media stuff - @planetmoney.

MALONE: Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, with help from James Sneed and Gilly Moon. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

ROMER: This episode was reported with help from our intern, Irena Hwang. Irena did an absolutely heroic job digging into the very clunky data Facebook and Google make available to the public about presidential ad spending. Also, special thanks to Erika Franklin Fowler at the Wesleyan Media Project and Ben Taber at Advertising Analytics.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

ROMER: And I'm Keith Romer. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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