The president is not slated to be on the airwaves anywhere during the final week of the month, as Republicans hold their convention.
It’s a jarring turn of events for a reelection effort that has long promoted itself as a financial powerhouse and until recently had a heavy TV presence. And it’s exceedingly rare to see a sitting president go dark so close to an election. But the Trump campaign has seen its longstanding cash advantage over Biden dwindle to just about $20 million, according to the most recent financial disclosures, even as Biden pours money into commercials.
Trump aides say they have decided to focus their spending on the post-Labor Day final stretch of the campaign and say they see little reason to advertise during the national conventions, which are receiving widespread coverage. Biden’s campaign spent $16 million on TV during his convention week, and is on track to spend more than $14 million during this week’s Republican confab.
It “makes little sense to blow donor money on ads during convention weeks, when all of the national media is focused on the candidates anyway,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh, who argued that Biden’s advertising barrage was to designed to compensate for his relatively light public schedule.
Yet it has worried senior Republicans, who argue the reelection effort erred by allowing Biden’s message to go unchallenged. Among Trump allies, there is a growing desire to see a super PAC fill the void. Many in the president’s sphere have long expressed dissatisfaction with America First Action, the principal pro-Trump outside group which has been outspent by its Biden-aligned rival.
“With 70 days to go in a campaign, all of the people who have raised money on behalf of Donald Trump’s name should be spending it to support his campaign right now,” said former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who informally advises the president.
David Bossie, a former Trump deputy campaign manager who remains close to the White House, said, “After years of planning, strategizing, and fundraising now is the time for the super PACs and those organizations that support President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s reelection to engage with their all-important dollars to have a positive impact now and not wait any longer.”
An America First Action spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The organization has spent roughly $13 million over the past month and has booked $24 million from September through the election. It has announced plans for a post-Labor Day, anti-Biden assault.
The Trump forces have also been hamstrung by the downfall of the National Rifle Association. The prominent outside group aggressively bolstered Trump in 2016 but has been essentially a non-factor in 2020 as it confronts an investigation into alleged financial improprieties.
Trump advisers note they have placed a premium on digital advertising, especially during the conventions. Between July 21 and August 15, the president’s campaign spent $31 million on Facebook and Google, while the Biden team invested $25 million, according to Advertising Analytics. It represents an advantage for Trump, but not of the same magnitude Biden has been enjoying on TV.
Trump aides strenuously push back on the idea they are facing financial problems, though campaign manager Bill Stepien has been examining the campaign’s operations, including budgeting. He has charged deputy campaign manager Justin Clark to review spending going forward.
After taking over the Trump campaign last month, Stepien briefly paused TV spending to reassess the strategy. Rather than airing commercials across the country, the campaign decided to target early-voting states.
Pressed on the scale-back during a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said the campaign was “conserving money right now and focusing a little bit more smartly and a little more effectively on the states that are voting early.”
Yet even in most of those early-voting states, Biden has dominated Trump. The former vice president spent more than three times as much as the president in North Carolina — where absentee voting begins next week — as well as in Florida and Arizona.
The one state where Trump outpaced Biden was Georgia, where the president’s team made a small investment. Losing Georgia would likely signal a catastrophic election for Trump, who carried the state by 5 percentage points in 2016.
The Trump campaign was also absent in Ohio and Nevada.
To some Republicans the scenario feels eerily similar to 2012 when Barack Obama crushed Mitt Romney during the convention weeks, fueling an early fall bounce.
“Over the dog days of summer, the Biden campaign and his outside allies have owned the airwaves in the states that matter most,” said Nick Everhart, a Republican ad-maker.
Everhart, however, cautioned that “the average voter has been more consumed with the pandemic’s impact on their life,” and said that “deciding who to vote for… is still a fall – not a summer – activity.”
Whether the Biden advertising advantage persists into autumn remains an open question. While the Biden campaign has announced plans to spend $220 million starting in September, it has so far reserved only about half that, according to media buying figures obtained by POLITICO. The Trump campaign has booked nearly $148 million so far.
The Biden team has greeted Trump’s summertime absence from the airwaves with jubilation and say it’s evidence of a campaign on the decline.
“The Trump campaign promised us the ‘Death Star,’ but instead what we got was something closer to the Titanic,” said Biden spokesman Michael Gwin.
Not everyone is convinced the drop-off will matter, though. Even without TV ads, Trump has an ability to draw attention in a way few politicians can. And many Republicans point out that the president found himself in a similar position four years ago.
“Trump was significantly outspent in 2016,” said veteran GOP ad maker Scott Howell, “and that didn’t seem to matter.”