Early Voting Brings New Media Challenges In Advertising and Editorial Endorsements

From shifting commercial placements to premature newspaper endorsements, this year’s early balloting procedures are having a massive effect on media operations.  Political strategists are figuring out how and more importantly when to place ads in this unprecedented season of extensive early voting. 

The Halloween weekend deluge of campaign ads just before Election Day on Nov. 3 may be meaningless if up to half of voters have already cast their ballots.  In a related vein, the ripple effect of advertising decisions also affects ad timing for down-ballot races, where voters may need more coaxing.

Meanwhile, newspapers – at least those that still write editorial endorsements – face the challenge of timing their recommendation, especially if local candidates and referendum issues have not yet generated voter attention as early voting begins this month.  

The entire process becomes even more complicated when you include polling factors.  Barely 15% to 20% of voters will remain “undecided” until the final days of the presidential campaign, so party tacticians will move spending to focus ads at individuals in the swing states (which may number up to 15) who will still need to be encouraged by last-minute ads.  But the campaigns will also be putting a lot of money into get-out-the-vote advertising to encourage their committed supporters to show up (physically or virtually) this year. 

There’s also the partisan aspect to early voting: A July ABC/Washington Post poll indicates that more than twice as many Democratic voters as Republican voters (51% to 20%) plan to vote by mail.

Collectively, all of these variables require a complicated and unprecedented media formula.

“September is the new October,” Republican ad strategist Evan Tracey told me.  Democratic media expert Mark Jablonowski agreed that “the typical [ad] binge right at the end … will be smaller since campaigns will begin spending earlier.”

With political ad spending expected to top $7 billion and perhaps reach $9.3 billion (depending which forecast you believe), campaign strategists are closely tracking polls to determine where to put the seemingly endless supply of cash – at least for major contested races.

At the same time, broadcast, cable, and especially digital media managers are calculating how to parse their ad avail inventories.  Candidates pay the “lowest unit charge” (LUC) rates on broadcast and cable, while political action committees – which are expected to outspend candidates this year – pay higher prices for the time they buy.  The political deluge comes (as usual) at the time when media companies are facing their busy season: Automotive companies are buying big to introduce new car models, and retailers have started their pre-holiday ad campaigns in an effort to make up for business lost during the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring.

Dwindling Newspaper Impact Also Affected

Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute journalism think-tank believes “it’s a little early to tell about early endorsements” from newspapers.  He has questioned the value of newspaper endorsements for several years, but told me that this year’s passionate climate and the amount of early voting may encourage more editors to publish endorsements earlier than ever.  Example:  the Washington Post ran a Sunday editorial on Sept. 13 with its recommendations (“Vote No”) on arcane local ballot propositions in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland.  

Edmonds, who is Media Business Analyst and Leader of News Transformation at Poynter, explains that it’s “tricky [for] papers [to] get ahead of the peak of the actual campaigns, especially the down-ballot local races where [endorsements] make the most difference.”  He points out that “space and staff for editorials are shrinking” so that some newspapers will focus on “community dialogues and ‘solutions journalism.’”  That approach also reduces the timetable for coordinating a newspaper’s recommendations with the actual local voting timetable before Nov. 3.

‘Everything Happening Earlier,’ Say Campaign Veterans

This year’s bigger media consideration is how to match ad placement with voting schedules.

Steve Passwaiter, vice president and general manager at Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), which monitors political advertising, characterizes 2020 as “very unfamiliar territory.”  He observes that political action committees – which are not entitled to the LUC rates that candidates pay – are outspending candidates. 

“This year we’ll get a flood of ads early,” Passwaiter told me.  He cited the “passion that’s in the mix this year,” although he still expects 40% of campaign funds will be spent on ads during October – probably early in the month. 

Kantar’s CMAG envisions $7 billion in national, state, and local political advertising in this election cycle, including $1.2 billion for local and network cable TV and $3.5 billion for local and network broadcast TV.  Digital platforms will garner $1.8 billion of the total, with the balance going to radio, print, and other media.

PQMedia, a Connecticut firm that has been analyzing election spending since 2004, expects total political advertising to top $9.3 billion this year.

Dr. Leo Kivijarv, executive vice president and research director at PQMedia, also expects “October will be a bigger month than normal.”

“Spending will not be concentrated in the last two weeks before Election Day,” he told me.  Like other researchers, Kivijarv expects ad-buying decisions will be made dynamically as campaign strategist track voter polls – especially in swing states – in order to throw money to lure voters who are still making up their minds.  He is especially focused on radio, which over-indexes on African-American and Hispanic voters.

Republican and Democratic party strategists also are evaluating how mail-in and early voting processes are affecting ad tactics.  Most acknowledge that COVID-19 has curtailed traditional campaign procedures – especially for local races – such as neighborhood events or door-knocking appeals.

Jablonowski, managing partner and CTO of DSPolitical, a digital advertising company for Democratic candidates and progressive causes, says “everything is happening a little earlier.”

“Ad buys are beginning earlier than ever for the more competitive races, he told me.  “Peak spending will start a bit sooner and last a bit longer than is typical,” although campaigns for down-ballot races may be delayed because of fundraising problems, he said.

“There are likely to be more buys than previous years – and they will be aligned to several key dates on a state-by-state basis,” Jablonowski added.  “We’ll also see get-out-the-vote buys starting earlier and running longer in more states.  But this isn’t about the number of ad buys; it’s about the amount of money that is behind the buys.”

“This election requires a much larger voter education and get-out-the-vote effort to help those who are unfamiliar with new voting processes and important dates to remember in addition to Election Day.  That means multiple flights, targets, and creative strategies,” Jablonowski said.

Republican political consultant Tracey agrees that early advertising to get out the vote will be a prime GOP goal this year.  Beyond seeing September as “the new October,” Tracey described the increased importance of get-out-the-vote efforts plus the newfound attention to over-the-top and connected TV this year.

People are learning how their smart TVs work with all their time at home,” he says.  “It will be a more challenging buying environment as we move toward November.”

Tracey expects PACs as well as candidates to put funds into early voting promotions.  And ultimately, he acknowledges that since 80% of Americans have already made up their minds on which presidential candidate they favor, the big push is to get out the vote and sway that “undecided” cadre of 15% to 20% of voters to swing your way.

Tracey notes that historically early voting has been a way “to bank your base.”  Now, he says, the message to everyone is: “Don’t wait for Election Day.”  He calls it a tactical move to “get your base voters to bank their votes early, then concentrate on the undecided.”

“This is the only business where you spend the most amount of money when you have the least number of prospective customers left,” Tracey says.

Like other political operatives and media executives, rivals Tracey and Jablonowski agreed that campaigns are putting an early emphasis on “get-out-the-vote” messages, both by candidates and political action committees.  They said that COVID-19 has forced everyone to “focus early” on political advertising.

Moreover, constant polling throughout the coming weeks will drive campaigns to buy commercials in locations where they identify still-undecided voters who have not yet cast early ballots.

What Media Companies Expect

“Early voting [puts] pressure on campaigns to ramp up advertising earlier than October,” says Kevin Latek, executive vice president and chief legal and development officer at Gray Television Inc.  “We saw some 2020 Senate candidates start advertising last summer.” 

Latek also notes the impact of early political advertising on other commercial placement.

“Political advertising displaces traditional advertising to varying degrees,” he told me.  “Political advertisers tend to advertise in local newscasts more than other types of programming, and that’s where we see the most displacement … [especially] between Oct. 1 and Election Day in most markets.”

Like other broadcasters, Gray is watching the increasing drive to place political ads on digital platforms, including ones it operates. 

Steve Lanzano, president and CEO of the Television Bureau of Advertising, has observed variants of the early-advertising movement in various states.  “It’ll start earlier and ramp up, with slower acceleration,” he said.  Lanzano also acknowledges the “agility” of political media buyers, who are buying time very dynamically.

“Their money moves on a daily and weekly basis, based on the polls,” he says.  “That moves a lot.”

Citing current polling data that indicate about 15 states may be competitive in the presidential race, for example, Lanzano explains that campaigns have already reserved buys on TV stations in those key markets.  

“We’re the only megaphone out there,” he said in an S&P Global Market Intelligence interview.  “You can’t hold the large in-person political rallies.”  Lanzano believes that stations will open up as much inventory as possible for political ads, citing competition for time from advertisers such as automotive companies.

“Inventory management will be important,” he says.  One unusual factor this year is that local stations have commercial slots available for tune-in advertising, especially to promote new shows.  But since the TV season has been delayed this autumn, Lanzano expects stations will sell that inventory to political campaigns.  

Dan Sinagoga, head of political sales at Effectv, the advertising sales division of Comcast Cable (formerly known as Comcast Spotlight), expects the commercial flow during September and October will be front-loaded more than usual. 

“Early spending for the general election is up by 14% in Effectv markets this cycle compared to 2018, and 20% over 2016,” he told Multichannel News

“States like California, Colorado, and Oregon have always been traditional heavy mail-in states in the Effectv footprint, but you will see more early voting in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida than ever before according to our agency partners,” Sinagoga explained.

As for sufficient ad-time inventory, he acknowledged that availability has “become a challenge” to some non-political clients, leading to a “delivery strain” as the amount of campaign advertising increases.

He cited the growth of multi-platform advertising, which Sinagoga calls “a pivotal part of Effectv’s sales efforts with VOD and IP inventory pitched along with linear TV on every avail.”  He expects video-on-demand (or connected TV) to become the “No. 1 or No. 2 reach channel available – on broadcast or cable – regardless of the market.”

“We are seeing a sweeping change in 2020 as it pertains to media allocations,” he said.  “We are seeing political agencies and their clients planning for up to 25% of budgets toward OTT resources.”

Like others who are monitoring campaign spending, Sinagoga observes that media outlets in swing states are already seeing political ad growth – especially states where early voting is widely used.

“The elongated voting season was a big driver in the record-setting political ad spend … in August,” Sinagoga said.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC, a Bethesda, Md., research and consulting firm that has analyzed media and telecom technology and policy for more than 30 years.  This report, in a different version, appears in Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News.