Even with traditional campaigning on hold, the presidential race is already rolling on Pennsylvania’s airwaves, with allies of President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden spending millions of dollars.
Only not in Philadelphia.
Of the roughly $9 million of ads the candidates and their allies have run on Pennsylvania television and radio so far this year, just $141,000 has gone into the Philadelphia market, the fourth largest in the country. (Those figures don’t count spending by Democrat Michael Bloomberg, who blanketed all of Pennsylvania, and other states, but dropped out of the race in early March.)
The heavyweights in both parties are focusing their resources elsewhere, according to data compiled by Advertising Analytics, a nonpartisan firm that tracks political ad spending.
The Democratic super PAC American Bridge has spent $4.2 million in the Pittsburgh, Erie, Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre, and Harrisburg media markets this year, but not a dollar in Philadelphia.
Priorities USA, which Biden has signaled will be the main super PAC supporting him, has spent $3.2 million on Pennsylvania radio and TV, none of it in the Philadelphia market.
And when Trump’s main super PAC, America First Action, announced its first round of TV ads earlier this month, its blasts linking Biden to China were all targeted to markets outside Philadelphia.
Millions’ worth of ads are scheduled in Pennsylvania for the coming weeks, but nothing more has yet been booked in Philadelphia until the final weeks before Election Day, when Pennsylvania is likely to be one of a handful of states that decides the election.
The focus on other parts of the state means that neither party is, yet, using the traditional avenues to target the media market that accounts for more than 40% of the Pennsylvania vote — though that is likely to change in the coming months.
The strategy reflects a combination of factors, mostly the high cost of Philadelphia airtime, strategists in both parties said.
It costs more to run an ad in Philadelphia than it does in the rest of the state put together, said Democratic media strategist J.J. Balaban, based in Philadelphia. And campaigns that advertise in Philadelphia effectively pay for many viewers who live in New Jersey and Delaware, two states that are uncompetitive in presidential races. About one in three viewers in the Philly market live outside Pennsylvania, according to Advertising Analytics.
Campaigns are likely saving their big expenditures in Philly for a more critical phase of the race.
“You’re not going to spend a lot of money in an expensive media market until you get closer to the election,” said Joshua Novotney, a Republican lobbyist based in Philadelphia.
Said Balaban: “I’m confident that all voters in the Delaware Valley, by the time this election happens, will have seen so many ads in the presidential election they will be sick of them. It just hasn’t started yet.”
An American Bridge spokesperson said its focus is on reaching wavering Trump voters. That means largely targeting rural areas. Until the coronavirus crisis hit, they had run ads featuring Trump supporters who felt let down by the president.
“Our paid media effort is focused on cutting into Trump’s margin with white, rural, and small-town voters and that takes a scalpel approach,” emailed Jeb Fain.
Democratic groups will need to reserve their resources to help Biden later, since Trump has far more campaign money, said Daniel F. McElhatton, a Democratic consultant from Philadelphia. “Spending that money now versus in August or September ... just doesn’t seem like the wisest of investments to me,” McElhatton said.
At the Trump-allied America First, a spokesperson said, "This is only our first tranche of spending and additional decisions will be made at the end of May.” She noted the group is hitting the same markets the two Democratic super PACs targeted first.
Priorities USA, while touting big spends in swing states, has also skipped big markets such as Miami and Jacksonville in Florida. A spokesperson pointed to comments the group’s chairman made in January, when he told the New York Times that such markets “become less efficient.”
A Priorities USA spokesperson also said the group is reaching Philadelphia-area voters with digital ads.
Priorities USA, American Bridge, and the Biden campaign have combined to spend $4.3 million on digital ads in Pennsylvania according to the Democratic firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. The Trump campaign has spent $1.2 million on such ads, according to the data from Jan. 5 through April 18.
On Wednesday the Trump campaign launched its latest online ad, featuring select clips of Democratic governors praising Trump and the federal government for coronavirus aid.
Television is still widely seen as the most effective medium for moving voters.
But digital spots allow the groups to reach people in the Philadelphia area without paying for New Jersey and Delaware, and to tailor different messages for deep-blue Philadelphia and the more moderate suburbs, said Daniel Scarvalone, a senior director at Bully Pulpit.
“Digital lets you be more thoughtful,” Scarvalone said. “You can run a message in urban Philadelphia urging folks to go to the polls. Then you can run a completely different message in suburban Philadelphia.”