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Summer ad spending shows Trump in retreat, defense in key states

Joe Biden seems to be making strides in Great Lakes and leaning into his offense targets.
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WASHINGTON — If you want to know what a campaign really thinks about its chances, you don’t listen to what it says, you watch where it puts its money.

This week's Data Download is looking at how the President Donald Trump and Joe Biden teams (and their main affiliated outside groups) have changed their broadcast ad spending over the summer. The numbers offer a peek into which states the campaigns actually believe to be competitive and they appear to hold some good news for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Every election season starts with a fairly well-defined electoral map, marked by states that both sides feel are truly tossups and states where each side feels it can go on the offensive and change the outcome. Since June, the ad spending shows there has been movement in those groups for both candidates.

Much has been made of how Trump won the White House by flipping these three states to his column in 2016. Most everyone assumed they would be a key focus of campaigning and spending in this election and that is mostly true.

Both campaigns seem fully engaged in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — between June 2 and July 20 both were actively spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in each — but there was one big shift in July.

The week of June 2, the Trump and Biden forces were spending at roughly the same level in Michigan, $474,000 for Team Trump and $498,000 for Team Biden. But in late June, the Trump number started to decline and by July 21, the numbers were roughly $16,000 for Team Trump and about $1.5 million for the Biden effort in the state.

Those numbers suggest that the Trump campaign and its main allies probably didn’t like what they were seeing on the ground in Michigan in terms of polling. And, of the three states, Michigan does seem to be the hardest slog for the Trump campaign. A Detroit Free Press poll released on Friday showed Trump had narrowed the gap with Biden in a head-to-head matchup ... to 11 points.

The Trump campaign doesn’t need Michigan to win and may think its money is better spent elsewhere.

The Democrats lost the White House in 2016, so they need to flip states Trump won in order to have a chance in November. Beyond the three Great Lakes states that arguably won the presidency for Trump, the Biden team has a particular interest in these states that, demographically, may be good targets for them. The broadcast ad money spent in these states shows both campaigns are now invested in duking it out in Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, but Arizona looks different than the other two.

In Florida and North Carolina, the Biden team has gone from no money spent the week of June 2 to near parity with the Trump and his supporting groups by the end of July. The week of July 21, the numbers were $1.4 million for Biden and $1.5 million for Trump in North Carolina. In Florida, it was $2.3 million for Biden and $2.4 million for Trump that week.

But in Arizona, Biden’s campaign and main allies went from spending nothing to outspending Trump and his main groups. The week of June 2, Team Trump’s spending was at $161,000 versus nothing for Biden. By the week of July 21, Biden and his groups were spending almost $1.3 million to Trump and company’s $1.1 million

That’s a notable shift and, again, it’s come as polls show Biden performing well in Arizona. In late July an NBC News/Marist poll showed Biden up by about 5 points, while a Morning Consult poll showed Biden up by 7 points. Numbers like those show why Biden is on the offensive here.

Even when you win the presidency, the goal is always to “expand the map” and make your opponent defend states on his side of the ledger. At the start of this cycle, the Trump campaign talked about a few targets they had in mind, these three states being key on that list. At the end of this summer, a few of these options look like they were non-starters for the Trump team, at least by judging their ad investments. But they may have staked out some ground in Nevada.

In Minnesota and New Mexico, a pretty clear pattern is evident. In both cases the Trump money started at zero and then quickly shot up into the $100,000-plus range per week, before crashing down again. On the week of the 21st, the Trump Minnesota spending was down to $21,000 and the team’s New Mexico spending was down to about $7,000. The entire time, Biden’s campaign and main groups have responded by doing nothing — the ultimate “I don’t care if you want to spend money there” response.

But in Nevada, the Trump Team did not bail. Their spending has gone from zero the week of June 2nd to more than $400,000 and stayed there through July 21st. And while the Biden seemed to be ignoring that spending early on and through the 21st, more recent ad buys suggest they are paying attention now.

The message in the state: Stay tuned, both campaigns may see this as a real and important battleground.

Again, Election Day is still almost three months away and the heavy campaign ad spending has yet to hit. Campaign perceptions and battlegrounds can change, and the Trump campaign is shifting its advertising strategy under its new campaign manager. But as of late July/early August, Joe Biden and his biggest supporting groups seem to be making strides in Great Lakes and leaning into their targets on offense, while the Trump team is looking for an opening in the southwest.