Originally Published on Ad Age

By Simon Dumenco

The 2020 presidential election season has been a bewildering mess so far. At Ad Age, though, we rely on a clarifying principle: You can start to make sense of the election cycle if you keep a close eye on the political ad game. Here’s what we’ve learned:

1. When it comes to political ad spending, Bloomberg is his own economy

If you’ve been reading Ad Age’s Campaign Ad Scorecard stories over the past few months, you’ve probably noticed that we can’t seem to stop using words like astonishing and unprecedented. You can blame one man: Mike Bloomberg. 

As of this writing, the media billionaire and former New York City mayor has spent an estimated $419.3 million on campaign advertising, according to the latest Ad Age Datacenter analysis of campaign ad spending in partnership with Kantar/CMAG. That number—all the more impressive given that Bloomberg launched his campaign only on Nov. 24—includes TV and radio as well as digital advertising across Google and Facebook properties. But it doesn’t reflect other costs such as salaries, travel, IT, office space, high-priced pollsters and other political consultants and non-measured advertising expenditures like the ad hoc meme campaign (see No. 6, below) the campaign has been experimenting with.

Whatever the ultimate total cost of his run, Bloomberg can afford it. Forbes pegs his net worth at $62 billion, which Business Insider recently noted is roughly 13 times the worth of all the other presidential candidates combined.

In a separate Ad Age story, Steve Passwaiter, VP, general manager of Kantar/CMAG, serves up some data on how Bloomberg’s spending compares to that of his fellow POTUS wannabes. But right here, right now, let’s put Mayor Mike’s outlay in context within the advertising universe.

If we were to try to awkwardly slot him into the annual Ad Age Leading National Advertisers (LNA) ranking, he’d land at No. 118—above Heineken, Kraft Heinz Co. and Hershey Co.—and once he surpasses $475 million in ad spending, he would enter the top 100 and outrank Facebook. We say “awkwardly,” because, again, the tallies we have for Bloomberg don’t include all marketing-related costs (whereas LNA totals include just about everything but fixed overhead), which means these are apples-to-truffles comparisons. And keep in mind that Bloomberg has already committed to spending a cool billion to defeat President Trump, whether he’s the ultimate Democratic nominee or not.

Basically, though, if you name an iconic American brand marketer, chances are pretty good that Bloomberg is already exceeding its annual advertising outlay—or will be any minute now.

2. Joe Biden’s messaging and advertising strategy have been off-target from the start

If you want to understand politics, as the saying goes, follow the money. And if you want to understand political strategy—or lack thereof—follow the advertising that the money buys.

In the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, for instance, we saw the hubris and delusion of the Hillary Clinton camp expressed by under-investing in their ground game in states like Wisconsin that they took for granted.

Likewise, presumed 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe Biden underspent on early-voting states—to the point that after he tanked in Iowa, his campaign scrambled to shift ad dollars to target New Hampshire voters with last-minute buys in the Boston market, which overlaps with southern New Hampshire. But of course it was too late to sway Granite State residents, and Biden flat-lined there too, coming in fifth place behind Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, though at least he outperformed sixth-place finisher Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire.

Of course, it’s likely that even massive targeting of Iowa and New Hampshire with feel-good ads wouldn’t have undone Biden’s self-inflicted damage on the campaign trail, including his foggy debate performances and his old-man-Joe, millennial-repelling anti-weed stance.

But if you really want to grasp Biden’s strategy (and strategic missteps), go all the way back to April 25 of last year, when he announced his campaign in a short speech delivered by video. It focused on Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of an August 2017 Unite the Right rally during which a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, causing multiple injuries and the death of Heather Heyer, a peaceful protester. In the aftermath, President Trump notoriously declared that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville confrontation, as Biden noted with outrage in his video.

To his credit, Biden in that video kickoff deployed some soaring rhetoric—“Folks, America’s an idea, an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant”—but mostly he delivered an anti-Trump, post-Charlottesville speech … two years too late. He didn’t mention the economy or jobs or health care, instead declaring that “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are—and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

Essentially, Biden failed from the start to define a clear agenda beyond being anti-Trump—in a field of Democratic candidates that is not only uniformly anti-Trump, but came to include two billionaires, Bloomberg and Steyer, who are dead set on positioning themselves as the most anti-Trump.

3. Bloomberg’s political spending goes much deeper than campaign ads

What has Mike Bloomberg gotten for all his hundreds of millions of dollars of ad spending? Well, he’s gone from low single-digit polling to arriving, as of last week, in third place in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, with 14 percent support, behind Sanders (32 percent) and Biden (16 percent). So, fine, political advertising kinda works—for some billionaires at least (apologies to Steyer, who has been having a hard time breaking out of the single-digit polling range).

Bloomberg, though, has something else working in his favor: his status as America’s most generous rich guy, given that he just landed at No. 1 on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 50 list, having dished out $3.3 billion to various charitable causes in 2019.

It’s just a coincidence that $3.3 billion in giving is an all-time personal high for Bloomberg and it happened to come in a year he announced his White House bid, right? It’d be churlish to suggest that Bloomberg’s charitable giving is, in part, a campaign expenditure, right?

Well, consider his history as a politician, as outlined in a HuffPost piece published last week: “Bloomberg’s Billions Didn’t Just Build A Political Network. He Also Bought Silence.” In the story, political reporter Molly Redden argues that Bloomberg essentially co-opted dissenters during his days as New York City’s mayor. “Bloomberg’s vast extracurricular philanthropy bought him not only allies in key political moments,” she writes, “but the illusion of political consensus and a lack of serious opposition to the billionaire’s personal policy preferences. In the months to come, Bloomberg’s rivals will have to contend equally with his ability to buy silence.” (If only he could have bought their silence at last week’s brutal debate in Vegas.)

And consider last week’s Washington Examiner headline: “Bloomberg’s charitable donations went to cities whose mayors he then asked for 2020 endorsements.” Ahem. (For even more context, see “The political force of Michael Bloomberg’s tactical charity,” a post published by Brookings Institution, the D.C. think tank.)

The bottom line: We can’t even really begin to calculate the real cost—or even the boundaries—of Mike Bloomberg’s White House bid.

4. We should all be keeping an eye on Reddit (it’s clearly a force for Bernie)

Enough about Bloomberg (for a moment). Let’s consider the messaging and ad strategy of the Democratic front-runner, Bernie Sanders. According to the latest Datacenter tally, he’s spent a total of $43.7 million to date (including advance bookings) on TV and radio as well as Facebook and Google properties. Sanders has been positioning himself as not only an anti-Trump figure with stark policy positions (Medicare for All, tax reform, etc.) at odds with those of the current administration, but the one candidate standing up against what he keeps calling “the billionaire class.”

He’s positioned his support as wide and deep (hardcore “Bernie bros” aside), driven by low-dollar donors. In fact, rallying a non-wealthy donor base has been the conspicuous purpose of Sanders’ recent, frequent advertising presence on Reddit. Unlike Facebook and Google, which are self-reporting political ad spending across their platforms, Reddit has yet to publicly share political ad spending tallies—probably because few have been demanding such transparency of the so-called “front page of the internet,” despite the fact that it has 430 million active users (i.e., more than Twitter, which, remember, has sworn off political ad dollars).

We can deduce, though, that the Sanders campaign keeps strafing Reddit with fundraising-appeal ads because the strategy is working.

Last May, Cheryl Hori, the founder of Pacific Campaign House, a full-service Democratic digital firm, wrote a guest editorial for the trade publication Campaigns & Elections titled “Why Reddit Could be the Facebook of 2020.” She cited improvements in Reddit’s ad platform as well as its targeting capabilities (“For example, if you have a Democratic candidate who’s looking to expand your reach into the South, taking out an ad on reddit.com/r/CornbreadLiberals would be a great place to start.”).

Facebook will surely be the Facebook of 2020, but Hori still makes a lot of good points. Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign is the only one that seems to have meaningfully figured out a Reddit ad strategy—but stay tuned.

5. Trump is the digital ad king for now

President Trump’s campaign ad strategy right now involves relatively modest spending on TV and radio (if you overlook that Super Bowl ad) while mostly focusing on digital. He’s doing this because he can, given that he’s been essentially unopposed in the state-by-state Republican primaries (with former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh dropping out in early February and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld barely a blip in the polls).

And Trump’s digital ad spending, mostly on Facebook, hasn’t been about his numbers (although he recently hit a personal best with Gallup’s job approval ratings: 49 percent). It’s been about rallying his base to give, give, give. Lately that base has been more motivated than ever. In December, Time magazine ran a story headlined “The Trump Campaign Has Raised Millions Off Impeachment—and Facebook Is One of Its Most Powerful Tools.”

We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: Trump gets to spend the primary season raising and hoarding cash­—and then he’ll likely go nuclear in the fall. Once the Dems formally name their nominee in July at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, then, bam—suddenly we’ll see major Trump ad spending beyond digital, with a barrage of absolutely brutal attack ads against his challenger.

6. Bloomberg’s ‘meme’ strategy is overrated and overhyped

In mid-February, The New York Times ran a story headlined “Michael Bloomberg’s Campaign Suddenly Drops Memes Everywhere.” In it, reporter Taylor Lorenz wrote about how the Bloomberg camp was working with an outfit called Meme 2020 to convince social media influencers to gin up meme-y, in-jokey takes on Bloomberg with the goal of positioning him as a with-it candidate who, well, knows how to meme on Instagram.

The story called to mind a certain famous meme that you’ve surely seen: a screenshot of a classic “30 Rock” scene of Steve Buscemi playing a “21 Jump Street”-style undercover cop working in a high school; he’s carrying two skateboards, wearing a baseball cap backwards and a T-shirt that reads “Music Band” as he approaches a group of teenagers with the greeting, “How do you do, fellow kids?”

So, yeah, for a minute people got excited that 78-year-old Mike Bloomberg pulled on his own “Music Band” T-shirt—but no one seems to have any idea of the actual value of a barrage of sponsored, vaguely pro-Bloomberg Instagram memes.

Similarly, The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Team Bloomberg has been bankrolling a “social media army” of influencers to text pro-Bloomberg messaging to their contacts. Nothing could go wrong there, right?

It’s worth noting that the most popular of the Meme 2020 posts have mostly gotten “likes” in the mere tens-of-thousands range. And if you want to get a sense of just how niche—and, frankly, just how off-brand—this initiative is, consider some of the handles of the influencers Meme 2020 has sucked into the Bloomberg orbit, per the Times: @KaleSalad, @White PeopleHumor, @GolfersDoingThings, @TrashCanPaul, @ShitheadSteve and @MyTherapistSays.

Our therapist says this isn’t going to move the needle.

7. Super Tuesday is really California Tuesday

All eyes are on Super Tuesday—March 3, when Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia all hold primaries—but at Ad Age Campaign Trail headquarters we think of it as California Tuesday. There are 415 delegates up for grabs in the Golden State (Texas, with 228, is a distant second).

You’ve probably been seeing headlines like “Bloomberg’s Super Tuesday Gamble May Be Paying Off”—from FiveThirtyEight, which notes that Bloomberg is in a virtual tie with Sanders in Virginia. (The “gamble” in the headline refers to Bloomberg largely bypassing serious campaigning in early-voting states while lavishing attention on later-voting states.)

But Virginia has only 99 delegates. Meanwhile, consider this headline from, yes, Bloomberg News (!) from last week: “Bernie Sanders Jumps to Commanding 32% Lead in California Poll.”

8. No Democratic candidate FTW!

Speaking of FiveThirtyEight, the poll-parsing statistical wizards there are, as of this writing, still sticking with a national primary forecast that leans toward no candidate getting a majority of pledged delegates—a 41 percent likely outcome (although Sanders is right behind with 38 percent). This would make for a messy Milwaukee convention, to say the least.

This is a primary season that has so far defied expectations, from the surprising early strength of Buttigieg, to the faltering Biden and Warren campaigns, to the grassroots Sanders’ surge to the self-financed Bloomberg bump to the unlikely staying power (or stubbornness?) of Klobuchar and Steyer.

All that said, given tens of millions of dollars of ad spending in California and other key Super Tuesday states, could Bloomberg start to close the gap with Sanders? At this point in the game, we’d never say never.

And finally …

9. Russian (and other interference) is the real campaign ad wildcard

Much political ad spending, as we’ve said, involves good old-fashioned media, and Ad Age Datacenter in partnership with Kantar/CMAG will continue to painstakingly track those numbers for you, as well as keep tabs on self-reported figures from the likes of Google and Facebook. 

Meanwhile, some of the currently untracked campaign initiatives we outlined above—things like Reddit ads and experimental meme campaigns—will continue to be the known unknowns.

What we should all really be bracing ourselves for, though, are the unknown unknowns: campaign spending that falls into murky black-ops territory, with backing from invisible, or at least secretive, domestic and foreign sponsors. We’re talking digital whisper campaigns—think of all manner of nastiness up to and including deep-fake videos—that will make the disinformation wars of 2016 look like child’s play.

Remember, the incumbent U.S. president has repeatedly and openly encouraged foreign meddling in the election and has faced little or no consequences for doing so.

Right now there are political operatives in the U.S. and abroad who are looking at TV, radio, Facebook and Google ad spending as adorable artifacts of a more innocent time.