TV Advertising in Presidential Race Half of 2012 Level

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Oct. 19 — The 2016 presidential race is seeing less than half the level of television advertising witnessed in the last presidential campaign in 2012, according to the latest analysis by the nonprofit Wesleyan Media Project.

The ongoing study of TV ad data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG found 117,000 presidential ads aired between Sept. 16 and Oct. 13, compared to 256,000 ads during the same time period in 2012.

“People in the battleground states are getting a bit of a break this year,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

Fowler attributed the drop-off in TV advertising largely to the unconventional Republican nominee, Donald Trump, whose campaign has been driven mainly by free media coverage. However, she noted that the number of ads favoring Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton this year are only half the number of ads aired four years ago in support of the re-election of President Barack Obama.

The Clinton campaign aired 62,000 ads over the month studied, compared to 124,000 aired by the Obama campaign during the same time period in 2012.

Three Times More Clinton Ads

In spite of the lower ad volumes overall, the Wesleyan study found that pro-Clinton ads outnumber pro-Trump ads by more than 3-to-1.

The difference in TV advertising, which historically has been the largest budget item for major presidential campaigns, largely reflects the difference in campaign funding between the Clinton and Trump campaigns. Overall, Clinton's campaign and allied groups have raised more than two-and-a-half times the amount raised by Trump and his allies. The Clinton side led the Trump side in the money race by $517 million to $205 million raised through the end of August, according to analysis of FEC reports by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

The Wesleyan study noted that outside groups supporting each of the candidates are responsible for a large portion of the TV ads in the campaign race. On the Democratic side, there has been more advertising sponsored by outside groups—mainly the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action—than in 2012, when the same super PAC and others aided Obama. Although there has been somewhat more outside group activity on the Democratic side in 2016 than in 2012, candidate advertising is down by half, the study noted.

On the Republican side, both candidate and group-sponsored ads are down dramatically from 2012, the Wesleyan study found.

Outside spending on ads in the presidential campaign was led by Priorities USA Action, which aired more than 21,000 ads at an estimated cost of $20 million in the month following Sept. 16. That was followed by ad spending favoring Trump from the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action. The NRA group aired over 5,000 ads at an estimated cost of $4.7 million during the same period, the Wesleyan study found.

More Democratic Ads in Senate Races

The Wesleyan study also looked at TV ads in congressional races and found the Democratic side also is outspending Republicans in the most competitive—and most expensive—Senate races. The exceptions were the tight Senate races in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the Republican side led.

The volume and cost of advertising in Senate races was highest in the Pennsylvania’s race between incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty. The race has seen the most TV ads since Sept. 16, with over 26,000 airings at an estimated cost of $21.6 million.

Indiana’s Senate race was close behind, with almost 24,000 ads worth an estimated $11.3 million.

That was followed by Senate races in Missouri, Nevada and North Carolina.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at

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