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What political ad spending says about the state of Minnesota’s biggest races

Trump’s retreat from the Minnesota airwaves, a very competitive Senate race (south of the border); and more.

political ads
Since Sept. 1, data show candidates and issue groups in Minnesota have scheduled nearly $57 million on broadcast TV and radio ads alone. Campaigns have also spent millions more on cable and digital advertising across a range of platforms.

By now, Minnesotans who watch TV, stream shows and use social media have had their channels and feeds pretty well saturated by political ads.

Since Sept. 1, data show candidates and issue groups have scheduled nearly $57 million on broadcast TV and radio ads in federal races alone, according to data compiled by University of Minnesota Assistant Professor of Media Law Chris Terry and his political advertising class. Campaigns have also spent millions more on cable and digital advertising across a range of platforms.

Political campaigns spend so much money on these ads every year because they work. Or campaigns think they do. Or they think if they don’t spend all that money on ads while the opposition does, they’ll be in big trouble on election night.

Here’s a look at what the ad data tell us about some of Minnesota’s biggest political contests.

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Trump has pulled ads out of Minnesota — and Biden has pulled a few, too

One of the big stories in recent weeks with respect to the presidential campaign in Minnesota was President Donald Trump pulling ads out of the state. Trump once planned to spend $14 million on ads in Minnesota.

According to data compiled by Terry’s class, Trump pulled nearly 4,000 ad spots, or roughly $2.5 million in broadcast TV and radio ad orders, from the state in recent weeks.

“It suggests they’re moving resources to other places,” Terry said. “Especially in a presidential year, a lot of buys are ahead of time, so they put money into Minnesota and now they’re looking at Minnesota and they’re saying we can use that money someplace else.”

Minnesota isn’t the only state the president was pulling ads from. Politico reported last week that former Vice President Joe Biden had the airwaves largely to himself in recent weeks in states that voted for Trump in 2016, including Iowa, Ohio and Texas. The Trump campaign has shifted money to Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Georgia, Newsweek reported.

Recent data show Trump making a comeback in digital ad spending in swing states after falling behind Biden, but he does not seem to be making a big digital push in Minnesota or neighboring Wisconsin yet, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Federal Communications Commission filings analyzed by Terry and his class show Trump has more ads run or scheduled to run in Minnesota this week than he did last week, but Terry said the evidence does not suggest the campaign is all-in on Minnesota, a state where polls suggest Biden has a strong, though potentially tightening, lead.

“One of the things we have been seeing at least in the lead up to this news was that Biden was heavily out-advertising Trump in most places across the country through the end of September, including Minneapolis,” said Michael Franz, the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “The news that he might pull out of some of these states is indicative that the campaign needs to be won in very few places.”

Documents filed with the FCC recently show the Biden campaign has pulled some ads out of the Duluth market.

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Lots of money is being spent on Senate ads…

…in broadcast markets that border Iowa. This year, Minnesota’s Senate race, which pits incumbent Sen. Tina Smith against former Minnesota Second District Rep. and conservative talk show host Jason Lewis, isn’t getting a lot of national attention.

Last week, Franz said Smith was heavily out-advertising Lewis, and a lack of interest from national outside groups suggests those groups aren’t forecasting a competitive race.

All-told, Wesleyan Media Project has tracked 4,479 broadcast TV ads run by candidates, parties and outside groups in the Minnesota Senate race, for a total of $2.1 million in spending — a fraction of the ads and spending in Montana (44,000 ads and $14.5 million) and Iowa (39,000 ads and $20.8 million).

The Iowa Senate race is one of the biggest nail biters in the country. Incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, in office since 2015, is up against Democrat Theresa Greenfield. The nonpartisan Cook Political report rates the race a toss-up, and recent polls have put the candidates neck and neck.

Unsurprisingly, ad money is flowing into Iowa, and some of that spending is bleeding into broadcast markets in Southern Minnesota.

“The big Democratic groups that support Senate candidates and even the Republican groups that support Republican candidates for Senate, it’s all for [Iowa Republican Sen.] Joni Ernst, in the stations that are around the border. There’s a lot of radio out there,” Terry said.

In Minnesota, though, “The data suggest that race isn’t very close. Especially in a state that Trump had designs on just a few weeks back,” Terry said.

Outside groups have spent $1.4 million in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race, according to OpenSecrets, which is less than outside money groups have spent in Minnesota CD7, CD1 and CD5. The biggest spenders are Republican-supporting groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Citizens United Political Victory Fund, which has been promoting Lewis’ stances on law and order, followed by Democrat-supporting groups the Service Employees International Union, Planned Parenthood and the Alliance for a Better Minnesota.

The Seventh Congressional District is seeing a lot of spending

Minnesota’s reddening Seventh District, where DFL Rep. Collin Peterson is facing a serious challenge from former Minnesota Sen. and former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, is seeing the most broadcast TV ads of any Minnesota House race, as well as the most outside spending, at $7.3 million, according to OpenSecrets.

Campaigns and outside money groups had reserved 3,060 ads totaling $1.7 million in spending as of the end of September, according to Wesleyan.

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The biggest outside spenders in the race are the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Democrat-supporting House Majority PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican supporting group and the Committee for Stronger Rural Communities, a sugar industry PAC that supports Peterson, according to OpenSecrets.

“That seems to be the most competitive race in the state,” Franz said. “It’s certainly bringing in the outside spending, and the party spending, which is indicative of the likely competitiveness of the race.”

Fischbach’s ads, many of which Terry says are running in the Fargo market, seek to tie Peterson to the agenda of more liberal Democrats and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as promote her endorsement by Trump, discuss her ag positions and her pro-life stances. Peterson’s ads focus on health care and agriculture and accuse Fischbach of lying about him.

First Congressional District getting radio airtime

Down in Southern Minnesota’s First Congressional district, there’s some TV and a lot of radio ads.

Terry found Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn and second-time challenger Dan Feehan running a similar number of ad spots, but Hagedorn spending significantly less money due to running more radio ads, which cost less.

Cook puts this Southern Minnesota district in the “lean Republican” column, and there’s a significant money going into it from outside groups — $3.1 million.

The biggest spenders are the Democrat-aligned House Majority PAC, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Democrat-supporting Plumbers and Pipefitters Union and VoteVets.org. The Congressional Leadership fund is the top-spending Republican group.

In terms of messaging, Hagedorn’s ads tout his support from law enforcement and support for farmers. Feehan’s ads discuss potential ethical issues with contracts in Hagedorn’s office, health care and discuss his military background.

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Digital ads are a much bigger deal this year

Many digital platforms that sell ad space to campaigns only recently started disclosing data on them, so it’s difficult to compare the volume of ads on social media and other digital platforms this year to years past.

Still, the data available indicate digital ad spending is up, said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, whose Open Secrets project analyzes outside money and ad spending in campaigns.

“It’s certainly not replacing TV spending and the more traditional spending, but we are seeing a lot of digital spending this year, and digital spending is playing a much bigger role in the election,” she said. According to OpenSecrets, more than $10.7 million has been spent on Google ads in Minnesota this election cycle, while $22.3 million has been spent on Facebook ads.

These forms of advertising, whether a commercial before a YouTube TV video, a Snapchat post or a Facebook ad, have several advantages for campaigns.

First, they’re cheap: candidates can spend relatively little money and get a lot of impressions on an ad. For example, Trump’s committee spent $374 on a Snapchat ad touting the president’s commitment to safety, racking up 38,300 views as of last week. That’s a cost of less than $0.01 per view. On Tuesday before the debate, Biden’s committee launched a Facebook ad featuring Kamala Harris talking about how her mother was stereotyped. In one buy, the campaign has reached up to 60,000 for less than $3,500 as of last week, at an approximate cost of $0.06 per impression.

These ads aren’t only cheap, they’re often targeted. Snapchat’s data show which ads, like the one above, were tailored toward the platform’s users in Minnesota, and Facebook shows the ad was shown most often to 35-44-year-old women, and ran for platform users in North Carolina, Minnesota, Arizona and Wisconsin.

“These ads are very highly micro-targeted to audiences who are likely to be receptive or swayed by these messages,” Massoglia said.

If TV ads are finite — and often end up saturating the channels during commercial breaks — digital ads are nearly infinite.

On TV, “you see certain slots filling up really quickly. Primetime, certain highly watched shows or channels,” Massoglia said. “There’s just an endless potential for the number of online ads that can be purchased, so there’s less likelihood that you’re going to reach some kind of limit or capacity for the number of ads you can buy.”

And finally, they reach potential voters who don’t watch traditional TV. Many younger voters have cut the cable and don’t watch network television, so are unlikely to see traditional televised ads.