President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is slashing television spending in the Midwest, canceling millions of dollars in advertising in states that carried him to victory in 2016.
He’s been off the local airwaves completely in Iowa and Ohio. The campaign also has given up at least $2 million worth of reservations in both Michigan and Wisconsin since early September. And in Minnesota, a state Trump almost won four years ago and has expressed confidence in flipping, his team already has chopped about $5 million from its projected fall TV budget.
The numbers, confirmed by the media firm Advertising Analytics, reflect a race where Democrat Joe Biden has gained a fundraising advantage over Trump and where polling suggests these states are competitive toss-ups or tipping toward Biden. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, according to data shared by Democratic ad trackers, has in recent weeks boosted its TV presence in the Sun Belt battlegrounds — Arizona, Florida, and Georgia — and Nevada, a state Trump lost in 2016.
As Trump’s retreat in Iowa and Ohio became more pronounced this week, his advisers dismissed it as a sign of strength, despite polls that show him essentially tied with Biden in both states. And Biden’s campaign has accelerated its advertising in Ohio, which at the beginning of the 2020 cycle many Democrats did not believe would be a top-tier swing state.
“I don’t think the spin is in any way congruent with the reality,” Nicholas Everhart, an Ohio-based Republican ad maker, told BuzzFeed News. “There’s no reason why [Trump] would not be wanting to be on the air in those states, particularly Ohio, at this moment. Clearly there are some unpleasant financial realities impacting the strategic decisions they are making."
Biden and the Democratic National Committee outraised Trump and the Republicans by more than $150 million in August. Neither side has yet released September fundraising totals.
Trump still has millions of dollars in TV time reserved for each of the five Midwest battlegrounds through Election Day, but he could cancel those commitments in the remaining three weeks. He also could buy more time in the states, though that’s not been the trend.
“If overspending on TV ads determined the outcome of elections, Hillary Clinton would be president — but it’s cute that Joe Biden and his campaign think buying ads in these states makes up for years of Democrats viewing them as flyover country," Samantha Zager, the Trump campaign's deputy national press secretary, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "Biden can try to buy votes, but President Trump and his campaign will continue earning them on the ground and on the airwaves — and come November, we’ll be celebrating victory while Biden binge watches his TV ads from his basement.”
Biden’s campaign, like Trump’s, has shifted money in and out of states to address the changing dynamics of the race. A Biden spokesperson said the campaign’s ad spending has increased overall and in the Midwest but did not disclose where or by how much.
"We're building the widest possible path to 270 electoral votes in November, and that includes states across the Midwest that have been battered by Trump's historic mishandling of our response to COVID-19 and by his disastrous economic policies that put manufacturing into recession, cost us millions of jobs, and have left working families falling further and further behind,” said the spokesperson, Mike Gwin, in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Trump’s chances of a second term are trickier without two or more of the Midwest battlegrounds — he’d have to make up for losses there by holding the South and perhaps flipping states such as Nevada or New Hampshire. Losing Iowa or Ohio, in particular, could signal problems in Pennsylvania or Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, which awards one electoral vote.
The tightened race in Ohio has Biden officials and their allies particularly optimistic that Democrats are well positioned to win back places Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Sen. Sherrod Brown told BuzzFeed News this week that modest late-summer ad buys in Toledo and Youngstown — seen by many at the time as a shrewd move to also reach voters in neighboring Michigan and Pennsylvania — helped convince the Biden team to expand its effort in the state. This week, with Trump still off the air there, the campaign placed its largest Ohio ad buy of the fall.
“They did some experimental TV in Youngstown and Toledo, and I think they saw movement in polls, they saw what we were telling them is actually true — that there is great enthusiasm for Biden, and some Trump voters are regretting their vote,” Brown, who for weeks had privately been urging Biden to make a bigger play in Ohio, said in a telephone interview. “So, the experiment there worked. It gave them an indication that good things can happen.”
Republicans also see the state as a tipping point.
“I think Ohio is kind of the head and neck of the Midwest,” Michael Hartley, a Republican strategist in Ohio, told BuzzFeed News “In 2016 [Trump] won by 8, and I think there was carryover into neighboring states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. It’s the same type of folks, the demographics are similar. Western Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin have very similar people, particularly when you get into the working class. Shave a couple percentage points off that, and that could matter. If I see Trump winning Ohio by 6 to 8 points, then I think it means he’s winning nationally. Obviously if he loses Ohio, it’s Bad News Bears all around.”
Kadia Goba contributed reporting.
This story was updated to include the response from the Trump campaign.