A heated political environment and growing amounts of dollars in the hands of campaign operatives will combine next year to boost political ad spending 2.5% to $8.5 billion. That’s according to a just-released forecast from Borrell Associates. It projects radio will pocket $564.3 million in election-related ad spending in 2018. That translates to 6.6% of political ad dollars to be spent, a one point drop compared to the previous mid-term election in 2014.
“The big headline in all of this is how much the PACs are spending,” report author Kip Cassino said. “Everybody thinks that PACs only influence national elections but that’s not true at all. More than half of the PAC spending is local or below state level—and they have a lot of money.”
Borrell’s report shows television is likely to retain the lion’s share of all political dollars next year. TV commanded slightly more than half of what was spent this year. Yet broadcast television’s share is slipping as candidates expand their use of digital media, particularly social media. “Looking at digital spending, it’s clear that it’s begun to mimic broadcast TV’s odd-year even- year wave,” the report said. “And like a snake, it’s moving closer into a bite position for broadcast TV.” Borrell estimates digital advertising will account for 22% of political spending in 2018, or $1.8 billion. And social media is expected to account for more than $1 billion of that total.
Cassino said Facebook has made it very easy for someone to advertise using the social platform with a simple and intuitive process that quickly offers a description of the demographics candidates may want to hit. But not all political operations are created equally. “The smaller local campaigns are not real big into digital simply because they really don’t know how to do it,” Cassino said. For radio reps he thinks the best way to get around that is for a traditional media outlet to show how they can reach the same demographics. Cassino thinks that’s an especially powerful pitch in a local election. Traditional media like radio, TV and newspapers are also in a good position to portray themselves as a trusted local player if candidates and PACs feel “spooked” by ad placement uncertainty.
The report shows cable TV is the only other media other than digital to see its projected political ad take to go up next year. “The fact that they’re cheap, they’re local, and they have the ability to slice and dice the local audience helps them a great deal—but you could also say that about radio,” Cassino said. “I think people in the local campaigns are attuned to the idea that radio is affordable and locally focused is a great plus—but I don’t think there’s enough active selling going on among any of the local media. I think folks are sitting there waiting for the politicians to come—and they won’t.”
The ‘Quiet’ Off-Year Elections of 2017
There were more than 11,000 contests nationwide during 2017’s off-year elections. While it brought nowhere near the sort of intensity in spending as during last year’s presidential race, Borrell calculates $4.97 billion was spent to support candidates and ballot initiatives. That includes $400 million that was spent on radio this year. In some cases Borrell said PACs were spending in local markets not on behalf of a candidate or ballot measure, but merely to lay the groundwork for 2018. The report says it illustrates how the American political landscape has blossomed into the “never-ending campaign,” marked by smaller peaks and valleys in ad spending. “If this trend continues, the nation will see a seamless political conversation through all four years of the cycle that ends with a presidential election, with little to no discernible odd-year pauses,” Cassino predicted.
Borrell forecasts the average U.S. Senate contest will cost each candidate slightly more than $800,000 in 2018. The typical U.S. House race will cost about half that. And while a local school board race may cost only $650, the money is more likely to come from a special interest group than the candidate’s own pocket.
“If I am at a local TV or radio station this could be a very promising election because there is a lot of indecision and head-scratching among these local candidates,” Cassino said. “They have more money than they used to, but they don’t have any idea where or how to spend it, and they’re not getting a lot of professional help to assist them. So if I know who my audience is and why a candidate should use me as a media source to get to them, and I can explain it, there’s a good chance I am going to get a chunk of that money.”