Planet Money - Political Ad Nauseam

It's presidential election season, and that means it's political ad season. But who do ads target, anyway? | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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This is planet money from NPR.

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So as you may be aware, there is a presidential election coming up in a few weeks and the campaigns of the two candidates are moving a lot of money around right now to try to win that election. Yeah, we got reports of of President Trump pulling millions of dollars out of Ohio and Iowa and then Joe Biden's throwing another million at Minnesota and then Trump putting money back into Ohio and Iowa and for a person these are life-changing amount of money, but for a presidential campaign, this is nothing. These are just tiny tactical moves on the edges of a much much bigger sing between the official campaigns and the super Pacs political action committees by election day the advertising spend for the presidential general election is expected to be a billion dollars a billion dollars for ads in the presidential campaigns are not just spending all that money willy-nilly they've got these very sophisticated models of the entire American electorate.

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Models that try to answer the question of how you can turn all of those dollars into a win on Election Day and you know, we're nosy reporters. We wanted to take a peek at those models. So we asked Trump campaign at the Biden campaign. Hey, we just like shoot us over your fancy strategy spreadsheets Theseus on your internal emails. But but as soon as it happens, they are quite secretive about this stuff slide or finger down the list of major political advertisers until we found somebody who would talk to us all the time. They paid media director at priorities USA, which is a democratic Super PAC engaging in the 2020 election after is a button campaign itself priorities is the biggest political Advertiser on the left on just a presidential elections.

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Evenly across the country into the thing we wanted to know was who specifically he's the person being targeted by the campaigns. Like what kind of person is having the most amount of money spent on them. If you we were to look at the whole universe of presidential spending by the campaigns by outside groups.

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What does your gut say the most expensive voters in the country would be in terms of advertising spend? Where do you think they would be is quantifiable? Can you open that that spreadsheet and read off the top three names today?

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I feel like I'm not answer your question though, because she would not answer. My question is the most expensive motor quantifiable. Yes measurable. Yes Sheriff not so much.

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Hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Keith Romer and I'm Kenny Malone. We may not be allowed to look at the campaigns secret spreadsheets, but we are not going to let that deter rest today on the show. Try to find the most expensive voters in the country. The people that campaign spend the most to reach you want to find out who these two campaigns think hold the key to becoming the next president of the United States. All you have to do is follow the add money to okay, Bob Woodward.

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As much as campaigns want to keep spending secret federal law actually requires TV stations around the country to disclose all the political ad the campaign's by and those TV at 4 something in the ballpark of 60% of campaign ad spending a lot of the rest is stuff like Google and Facebook ads at endo's companies actually don't have to disclose as much information about the ads So today we're going to focus on TV spending the majority of the spending. So think of the United States as a giant game board to campaigns walk around the board. They put some of their add money down this part of the country little bit more over here and the way they put that money down tells us what place is they think are most important for winning the election if you're looking just at the state level the bronze medal goes to Wisconsin 64 million dollars worth of TV ads. They're not surprising Wisconsin was one of those states that Trump flipped from the Democratic call him back in 2016 silver.

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Pennsylvania with 107 million dollars worth of TV ads and in first place with 130 $3000000 America's favorite election meltdown waiting to happen Florida my beloved Florida. This is just our beginning calculation. We're going to dig in more but there are lessons to learn just looking at the big picture the big campaign game board. This is not a monolithic place. You're going to have super Republican areas like the Panhandle and then big Democratic areas around places like Miami and you might imagine that the most cost-effective thing is for the Republicans to completely pull out of the democratic strongholds and vice versa. But in fact neither political party is doing that. The whole state is getting bombarded with ads from both sides Daniel Butterfield from the Super PAC priorities USA. She says it can start to turn into some

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Like an arms race that when you see your opponent spending money in a market it really raises the question of what should I be spending money there to keep that area. If you want to understand why political spending just keeps going up. It's at least partly because of his arms race if your opponent spends more in Tampa, you have to spend more in Tampa, which in turn makes the cost of ads in Tampa that much more expensive next thing, you know, use blue hundreds 33 million dollars in Florida. Danielle says the arms race thing is not just irrational fear. There's a real electoral cost to waving the White Flag in a particular area and your opponent clears out that is great news for you to opponents that are kind of dirt driving the opposite messages. Is there like a particular Tipping Point that that sort of campaign folks will I get you got to spend the 20% otherwise

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Like what counts as not being drowned out?

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I'd say that's probably a more of a secret sauce that I wouldn't necessarily want to name on this podcast.

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I know I know roughly what percentage I think is useful. Is it 23%

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You got it. But okay so find lots of money being spent in Florida, but this is not a very specific answer to our question who is the most expensive voter. We wanted to be more granular which is why we got our hands on a more precise data set. Thank you advertising analytics. This data set is going to let us the zoom in on every single television market in the entire country. So for example, we know that 40 million dollars has been spent in the Orlando Daytona Beach Melbourne Market compare that to the Grand Rapids Kalamazoo Battle Creek, Michigan Market where it's 12 million dollars and sure there's more people in Orlando. But still, how are the campaign's arriving at exactly 40 million and exactly 12 million to help answer that. We've gotten some help Michael Beach Co cross screen media Michael runs an advertising analytics company now, but he has worked in the past for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush John McCain Mitt Romney and the

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Reason we wanted to talk to Michael is this whole job now is to figure out where a company's or sometimes political campaigns should Place millions of dollars worth of that. Michael has all this fancy proprietary software. If you're an Advertiser he can tell you whether you should be focusing your ads on like Republicans with minivans Or democrats who ride motorcycles or neither is that all these different attributes in his computer thousands of attributes for a ship to likelihood the to buy a Ford truck and did those do those two specific categories correlate? Yes, and no be like, it's pretty Geographic if you would like to look at in Northeast Ohio or your yeah.

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You're in Alabama on the senate race. Like that wouldn't be a very probably good signal right cuz like I can see us as a truck owner is because we thought it might be interesting to look at how many dollars were being spent on any given swing voter voters in theory or people who might be influenced by a political ad the problem is it is very hard to pin down exactly how many of these people are out there. But Michael software can at least take a stab at it to First identify how many likely voters there are in a particular TV market and then identify which of those has even the tiniest probability of changing their vote in a lot of this calculation is just sitting out the diehards if you are so many who voted in the last five Democratic primaries for every year you donate to the RNC you are out.

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But maybe your party affiliation is Switched a couple of times baby. You're a first-time voter that may put you in the swing bucket party and not not candidate. I driven in other words. We are estimating voters chances to swing between Democrat and Republican as opposed to Trump and Biden specifically but this still does give us a way to compare across TV markets. And when you re rank the country based on dollar spent per swing voter the top markets are not in Florida. In fact the top five add markets or all in Pennsylvania. And number one on that list where campaigns are spending around $90 per likely swing voter is my home television market the region in Western Pennsylvania in and around Erie, Pennsylvania. You grew up there. Like what is it? What is Erie? What are we talking about? Just to be clear. I grew up in Meadville was just south of Erie, but it's in the market and like yeah, this is a real.

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Gin with a lot of manufacturing jobs are these jobs have been leaving? It's been predominantly white as having the same kind of brain drain problem that a lot of the other parts of the so-called rustbelt are having but but look like I don't know anything about who we potential swing voter would be in the Eyrie television market. This is why we have Michael's but fancy software it can help us understand who that is. What can we know about the Erie market area? How does it compare to the rest of the country like who's there?

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If not, my magic machine here Michael punches in Erie Plus in a few numbers. All right, so it's running then he opens up a tab that let us compare the Erie population as a whole to just the likely swing voters. So now I look at in

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Erie a friend since the average adult is 53 years old. If you just take the whole population of the market the target audience if you said swing and likely to turn out is 47 telling us that the average swing voters is 6 years younger than the average there 47 years old and the other incredible thing about Michael's machine is it it's also able spit out the told media plan for how to reach those people. The machine can name the Single TV show watch by the most swing voters each week that show in the Erie area is the OT on Fox football shows our wrap-up of the day's games that'll be fair. That is one of the most watched shows in the entire country. But the number to do show that in terms of efficiency like a sports would be a pretty good way to get your ad in front of a decent chunk of Swing voters in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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In this market if the secret to understanding what the campaigns are thinking is to learn where the most money is being spent per swing voter that place is Erie, Pennsylvania unless it's actually more complicated than that.

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Of course, it is after the break we figure out what a political ad is really supposed to do and that takes us to the last stop on our search for America's most expensive motor.

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So up to this point we've been thinking about the question of who is the most expensive voter only in terms of Swing voters, but political campaigns divide up the electric in much more sophisticated ways to try to understand what they're up to be called up one last expert. Yeah, right Johnny and I'm a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the Machine learning Department in the school for coffee back in 2012 Riot was the chief data scientist for the Obama campaign and a lot of his job was trying to think about the best way to quantify everything that the campaign knew or could know about the people they were trying to get to vote for every registered voter in the US across different states. We have historical data is called a voter file and because campaigns are able to keep track of all the ways that you've interacted with that campaign. The voter file has a fair amount of specificity to it. It might have your name your address what primaries you voted in an

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This number every voter get to score a safety around if you're in the Biden campaign, every voter most likely has a score from zero to hundred and hundred is definitely supporting fighting zero is definitely supporting Trump the score comes from how you voted in the past. But you said to the door knocker who came to your house in 2016, if you donated money to Obama your likelihood to vote for beighton score goes up volunteered for the Hillary Clinton campaign, you're buying score also goes up. And if for some reason the campaign's don't have all that information about you Ryan says they can still usually do a pretty good job of predicting how you're going to vote by modeling you based on your age and race relive, you know as much as we hope he'll think we're all very special. We're all very similar to people that are our behaviors are are similar Ryan says that in addition to the score you get for How likely you are to support a candidate you get a second score that is hugely important to the

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It is a turnout score How likely you are to actually go out and vote and the turnout score is super important to a candidate's chances because you can have millions of die-hard supporters. But if they do not turn out to vote for you you are not going to win. So yes, there are ads that are trying to convince voters to change their vote from one candidate to another these are called persuasion ads. They tend to be kind of like centristy and unreasonable sounding but there are also what are called mobilization at like these are the red meat add design to motivate the base to turn out and vote and there is a third kind of had that once I learned about it, maybe even more cynical about political advertising. These are demobilization at the entire purpose is to Target your opponent space make them so fed up with the entire train rack of partisan politics that maybe they will just sit this election out. They will not vote and to be clear the lines between these different kinds of ads.

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Not absolute one person's mobilization. Add another person's demobilization add. What all of this means is that ads are not just targeted at those like swing voters in the middle of the political Spectrum. They're targeted at everyone. And so we ran our numbers one last time this time focusing not just on the swing voters, but on all of the voters campaigns are trying to get to switch sides or mobilize to vote or convince not about all of them. And when you look at the cost per voter instead of just cost per swing voter the most expensive voters are not in Florida are not in Pennsylvania. They are in Wisconsin has a nice Midwestern Community about 39,000 people. It's very middle-class. It's a nice place to raise a family. This is a software engineer named Kelly. He lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, and that is our answer the television market around Wausau.

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And in that market campaigns are spending almost $40 / likely voter until he says you can see it everywhere. It's all Biden all Trump all the time. If you're on TV, if you're on the radio, if you're on Facebook, it's pretty inescapable. Kelly didn't want us to use his last name because he says politics in Wausau has become really touchy subject people have very strong views very very strong views actually had a hard time finding people in Wausau would let me record our conversations. There was a trump supporter in a diner. She said somebody to come in and yelled at her for the signs you had out in front of a restaurant a different woman a seamstress said that she didn't want to lose all her customers. I publicly saying she was going to support Joe Biden Kelly says the energy around Wausau has just shifted in his perceptible way the acrimony the neighbor to neighbor, you know fighting you see a lot where

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Somebody in the middle of the street will put up a big Trump sign in their yard. And then the neighbor across the street will do the exact same thing the next day but for Biden, I've been through many presidential elections here. This is the worst. I've seen it by a factor of 5, when we first gave ourselves this project to figure out where the campaigns were spending the most money. We figured we would find where voters were mostly just annoyed by all the noise, but what I heard from Kelly and the other voters in Wausau with something darker than that, the ads are really especially from the from either very apocalyptic. Like there's a big ad from Kenosha in a burned-out car lots and people riding in the street and it's a mom who lives in Kenosha and she's saying I don't want the rest of the state to experience what we've experienced. So what is it like to be one of the most expensive voters in the country you are bombarded by persuasion.

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Mobilization and demobilization at Sand and Kelly says the sum total of this is just moving people deeper and deeper into their political Corners even with friends, you know, you don't really want to bring that stuff up because it's just going to lead to arguing and you don't want to stir up things where things don't need to be stirred up, you know.

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What does a billion dollars in add money by you may be some change Minds maybe some votes. You would not otherwise have gotten but also maybe a country that is even more divided in before the campaign ever started.

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Thinking about spending a billion dollars to influence the direction of the country. Let us know send an email at Planet Money and NPR. Org. We are also on all the Social Media stuff at Planet Money Today Show is produced by Alexi Horwitz Ghazi with help from James Snead and Gilly Moon out gold marks are supervising producer Brian Dorsett at the shop. This episode was reported with help from our intern Irina Wong Arena didn't absolutely heroic job digging into the very funky data Facebook and Google make available to the public about presidential ad spending also special. Thanks to Erica Franklin Fowler at the Wesleyan media project and Ben Tabor at advertising analytics. I'm getting a loan and I'm Keith Romer. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
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