Political Media Buying 2020:
How Has the Coronavirus Impacted Strategies June 2020 Update

Contributor: Leo Kivijarv, Ph.D., Executive Vice President & Director of Research of PQ Media

It’s been over nine months since I last posted on the RAB blog regarding political advertising and marketing during the 2020 elections. Back then, there were still more than 20 major Democratic candidates, enough to compose a football team. Two Democratic debates had been aired, as top candidates jockeyed for the lead. Primaries were still months away and candidates were in full fundraising mode. Donald Trump and the Republican Party were on edge about the 2020 elections. On the one hand, they were touting the strength of the US economy, although there were fears of a recession if the US-China tariff trade wars escalated. On the other hand, impeachment was being discussed, but it related to the obstruction findings in the Robert Mueller report. Based on the political environment in August 2019, PQ Media was predicting that political media buying would reach $8.33 billion in 2020.

However, two days after my RAB blog post, Politico published its now infamous article about military aid being withheld from Ukraine that eventually would lead to Donald Trump being impeached by the House of Representatives but not by the Senate. In November 2019, Michael Bloomberg entered the race and spent more than $500 million before dropping out. Forty-four Democratic primaries and caucuses were held, including eight on June 2, and Joe Biden resurrected a flaying campaign in South Carolina during March’s Super Tuesday to become the presumptive Democratic nominee after Bernie Sanders dropped out in early April. Most importantly, the coronavirus pandemic reared its ugly head. “Social distancing” became part of our vocabulary. Stay-at-home edicts were issued by most state governments. Wearing masks in public became mandatory and subsequently a controversial issue. The US economy sank into a recession as more than 40 million jobless claims were filed. Sadly, more than 1.7 million Americans would contract the virus that would lead to over 100,000 deaths as we enter June 2020, a little more than five months away from the 2020 elections.

What Does this Mean for 2020 Political Media Buying: The Big Picture

The simple answer – it remains a crapshoot.

Political race prediction sites have become a bit gun shy in 2020 after the 2016 debacle, in which over 20 sites gave Hillary Clinton a 99% chance of winning the election. Among the most egregious errors were the predictions that Clinton would carry Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, states Trump would win by fewer than 100,000 votes combined, but which provided the cushion to carry the electoral college regardless that Clinton received approximately three million more votes nationwide. Some 2020 models of the election show a repeat of 2016, in which Biden receives five million more votes than Trump, but loses the electoral college.

And what about Congress? Many think that there will be a “blue wave” like the 2018 mid-term elections in which the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives. However, many forget that the Republicans retained control of the Senate by winning three of the four races that were considered “toss-ups” before the election. The same scenario could occur in the Senate in 2020, in which a handful of elections will determine which party wins control. However, it would take a major “red wave” for the Republicans to regain control of the House, which most pundits don’t expect to happen.

Then there are the local races. The gubernatorial races are being viewed as a referendum on how the incumbent handled the response to the pandemic. It should be noted that there are only 13 seats in play in 2020, compared with 36 in 2018, so there won’t be many opportunities for the opposing party to replace the sitting governor. Political media buying on referendums might be down due to COVID-19. During the last five presidential elections dating back to 2000, there has been an average of approximately 160 ballot initiatives. As of May 29, only 81 have been registered in 31 states. There are also fewer mayoral and state senate races during a presidential election year. However, many candidates running for city/state positions are being forced to rely more heavily on advertising & marketing because social distancing and stay-at-home measures are preventing them from holding rallies and fundraising events.

That’s the big picture. In the remainder of this week’s blog, I’ll concentrate solely on the trends driving the presidential race. In my next blog, I’ll discuss the other categories and provide PQ Media’s revised prediction of political media buying in 2020. Spoiler alert – it will be higher than $8.33 billion.

The Race for the White House 2020

PQ Media has identified seven trends that might determine how much money will be spent during the presidential election, where it might be spent and how it could be spent:

  1. Toss-Ups
  2. Coronavirus
  3. Economy
  4. Demographics
  5. Voting
  6. Bros
  7. VP


Like the past five elections of the 21st century, most of the spending in 2020 will occur in only handful of states. According to The Cook Report and Inside Elections (formerly The Rothenberg & Gonzalez Political Report), four to six states will probably determine the next election: Arizona (11 electoral votes), Florida (29), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Pennsylvania (20), and Wisconsin (10). It should be noted that Nebraska and Maine allow electoral votes to be split, thus the Nebraska 2nd District is also considered a toss-up. As a reminder, 270 electoral votes are needed to win the presidency.

As of June 1, Inside Elections has Biden winning 269 electoral votes, including victories in Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Cook Report count is 232 electoral votes. Both have Trump at 204, facing a harder uphill battle. In the Inside Edition model, Biden only must carry one of the four states to win the election. The Cook Report model is more complex, requiring Biden to win either Florida and one other state, or Pennsylvania and two other states if he loses in Florida. Interestingly, both websites have scenarios in which there could be an electoral college tie. The Inside Elections tie occurs if Biden doesn’t win any of the four toss-up states (Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin), as well as losing in Nebraska’s 2nd District. There are two tie scenarios in The Cook Report: Biden wins the Nebraska 2nd, Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin OR he carries only Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin (37 electoral votes in both scenarios). Notice that Trump carries Florida and Pennsylvania in both tie scenarios. In the event of that happening, the House would decide the next president, with a caveat. Each state is given only one vote, rather than all its representatives casting votes individually, thus the outcome would be closer than some would think given the current makeup of the House.

Recent April-to-May state polls favor Biden in these six states, per FiveThirtyEight. Biden leads Trump in every single poll taken over the past six weeks in Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin. There were nine polls in Pennsylvania, of which Biden has a solid lead in seven, but one had the candidates even and another had Trump winning by low single digits. Trump’s best hope is North Carolina in which six polls have been conducted and he is ahead in one poll, even in two polls, but behind Biden in three polls.

There is a distinct possibility that more states could become toss-ups, which The Cook Report and Inside Elections currently designate as “Lean” or “Likely.” Eight-to-10 states fall into these two categories. Inside Elections identified four states that lean or are likely to vote Democratic – Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine (all but the 2nd district) and Nevada, with The Cook Report adding Colorado and Virginia. Both websites have four lean/likely Republican states – Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas (and Maine’s 2nd district as referenced earlier). Unfortunately, there haven’t been many polls taken in a majority of these 10 states since April, such as only one in New Hampshire and two in Ohio. Regardless of the number of polls, the results mostly favor Biden. In all six Democratic lean/likely states, Biden has led in every poll taken since February, and in some instances, Trump was also losing to other potential Democratic candidates like Sanders and Buttigieg. In the Republican lean/likely states, Biden has made headway in recent May polls in Georgia, Texas and Ohio either leading or even after being behind Trump in April. Trump’s only positive outcome occurs in Iowa, where he has led in every poll taken since February.


This is the greatest unknown in determining who will win the upcoming election. As more states relax stay-at-home regulations, no one really knows whether this will this spur a second wave of cases. If it doesn’t result in a second wave, many voters might credit Trump with being aggressive in getting people back to work. If it does result in a second wave, his approval rating will continue to deteriorate from the May polls, in which more than 50% of the country had a negative opinion of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Current data is inconclusive. After a deceleration on May 25 to under 20,000 new cases per day, the first time since May 12, it climbed over 20,000 once again by May 27. Concurrently, there were fewer than 1,000 deaths per day on May 24, the first time since May 18, but by May 27, the daily death toll was once again over 1,000.

However, nationwide polls don’t really matter. Rather, one must examine how COVID-19 has impacted the sixteen states referenced in the Toss-Up section. Which have been the most adversely impacted by COVID-19, and do voters blame Trump or their governors? Of the big-six toss-ups, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida rank in the top 10 in cases, the remaining three are in the top 25. Of the 10 lean/likely states, Texas is the only top-10 state, although Georgia ranks 11th, the two states in which Biden has made inroads in the polls. Is this an indication of voter dissatisfaction? Of the remaining eight lean/likely states, only three are not in the top-25, all of which are lean/likely Democratic – Nevada, Maine and New Hampshire. Possibly a more important indicator of voter dissatisfaction might be states with a high per capita number of cases. The average in the United States is 51.2 cases per 1,000 population. Six states have over 100 cases, but they are all Democratic safe states like New York and New Jersey. Only three of the 16 states exceed the US average – Iowa (58.4), Michigan (55.8) and Pennsylvania (54.6), as of May 29. None are below 10 cases, with only Maine (16.3) under 20 cases per capita. Another index to consider are the share of deaths per number of cases – the U.S. average is 5.6%. Michigan leads the nation with a 9.6% share, while Pennsylvania and Ohio exceed the national average and rank in the top 10. Texas and Iowa have the lowest share at 2.7% each.

There are two demographic analysis of the COVID-19 data that do not favor the Trump campaign. One of his core constituencies are older Americans, yet they account for 75.5% of deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Recent articles published in states like Florida point to older voters becoming disillusioned with Trump over his handling of the pandemic. The second demographic is minorities, particularly African Americans. The Trump campaign is hoping that voter turnout among this demographic will be low, like 2016. However, minorities have been suffering a disproportional number of cases and deaths. For example, according to the CDC, African Americans accounted for 49% of the deaths in Georgia, compared with being only 31% of the state’s population. Will the anger over Trump’s handling of the pandemic lead to more minorities casting votes in November like they did in 2012 to help Obama defeat Romney?


Before the coronavirus pandemic, Trump was reveling in the strength of the economy. The stock market was regularly setting daily records. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the US economy had been in recovery for 131 months by February 2020, the longest expansion in US history. Polls were showing that a larger majority of voters believed that Trump would do a better job with the economy than Biden.

However, COVID-19 dramatically and quickly changed that in March 2020. To put this into perspective, historical analysis shows that the ruling party normally retains control of the presidency when the economy is doing well, and they typically lose control during a recession. For example, George Bush had an 88% approval rating in 1991 after the successful Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, but he lost the 1992 elections due to a recession that hit soon after the war, leading Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville to famously state, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Furthermore, some states are being impacted more than others because of the types of industries that drive GDP, such as transportation and hospitality. According to a May 1 analysis done by MSN, three of the 16 toss-up/lean/likely states ranked in the top 10 in share of the workforce that were employed in high-risk industries, including Nevada (33.5%), Florida (20.6%) and Georgia (19.7%). Another four states ranked in the top 25 – Texas, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. More damaging might be the number of newly unemployed, with five of the 16 states ranking in the top 10 in share of the workforce that had filed unemployment claims since February – Michigan (23.9%), Pennsylvania (23.2%), Nevada (22.4%), Georgia (21.5%) and New Hampshire (18.8%). Another four ranked in the top 25 – Ohio, Minnesota, Maine and Iowa. There are no known statistics, but it is our assumption that many of the “forgotten” voters that propelled Trump to victory in 2016 are among those most hurt by the forced business closures due to social distancing and stay-at-home regulations.


Suburban moms were the driving force behind the 2018 blue wave that helped Democrats gain 41 seats in the House of Representatives in 2018. In 2020, polling seems to indicate that women are once again leaning towards the Democratic slate of candidates. Other polling data suggests that the more educated voters also favor Biden. Younger voters are increasingly registering as Democrats, but many pundits wonder if they will go to the polls, as there was a decrease in the share of voters under the age of 25 that voted in 2016 and 2018 compared with the 2008 and 2012 elections.

A big push by the Democrats is the get-out-and-vote grassroot campaigns aimed at minorities, which began before the COVID-19 pandemic and had been somewhat successful during the 2018 elections. Recent events, like the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, are fueling the flames of discontent among African Americans who have seen an escalation of racism under the Trump administration. Hispanics have been angered by the ICE raids and caging of immigrant children, among other Trump administration policies. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Asian Americans have had to endure an increase in harassments since the Trump administration began attacking China as the origins of the disease.


A perceived battle is brewing among the two parties because of COVID-19 that relates to mail-in ballots. Democrats were horrified when the Wisconsin state judicial system forced voters to go to the polls, particularly when the three judges who passed down the ruling were abiding by the stay-at-home rules, and post analysis showed that a significant number of people, both voters and poll workers, contracted the disease, including few people who died. As a result, more states instituted vote-by-mail processes during the primaries, such as Ohio, while others are developing plans to expand the option during the November elections. Trump and Republicans are fighting these plans tooth and nail. For example, Trump threatened to withhold federal funding after Michigan’s Secretary of State sent out mail-in ballot registration forms to all Michigan voters. A few days later, the Republican Party sued California governor Gavin Newsom after he ordered an expansion of the mail-in balloting in that state. The Republicans are inaccurately claiming that voter fraud will increase, although data from states that allow mail-in ballots, like Oregon, have shown that less than a percent point of all votes cast were illegal. The most notorious mail-in fraud case involved a Republican operative during the 2018 House elections in North Carolina. The Republicans worry that they won’t win any other elections if mail-in ballots are allowed in quantity, with Trump himself being heard privately lamenting about this subject, regardless that he voted by mail in the last election.

The mail-in ballot is part of the ongoing battle between the Republicans and Democrats regarding voter suppression. In the past, voter files have been purged in states led by 30 Republican legislatures and onerous ID rules have been added that make it difficult for lower-income and older residents to meet. In 2012, TV producer Alan Sorkin tried to address this issue in an episode of HBO’s Newsroom, in which the anchor debunks the voter fraud myth espoused by Republican politicians, like then Texas governor Rick Perry, by showing that there were only 86 cases of voter fraud during the previous presidential election, or 0.0004%. More recently, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams complained that her opponent, Brian Kemp, who was then the Georgia secretary of state in charge of voting, had a history of voter suppression, such as the “exact match” policy during the 2010 elections in which the name and address on a person’s ID had to be exactly the same as on the Georgia voter registration list, regardless whether Georgia’s voter registrar or the ID provider, like the Georgia DMV, had made a mistake in entering the information. After her experience in the 2018 elections, Abrams started a non-profit that monitors voter suppression. There are concerns that the Republicans will again employ voter suppression in the major battleground states to help Trump win those electoral votes.


The Biden campaign is extremely worried that the most loyal Bernie Sanders supporters, known as Bernie Bros, will either skip voting in 2020, vote for Trump or add Sanders as a write-in vote. Anecdotal evidence, such as Facebook posts, suggest a great displeasure among the Bros with Biden’s presumptive nomination after Sanders dropped out of the race. For example, a meme being posted in May 2020 shows photos of Trump and Biden with the caption, “Forget the lesser of two evils,” with another photo below them showing Bernie Sanders with the caption, “And go with the greater good.” Polls in late April and early May showed that 25% of Sanders supporters had yet made up their mind as to whether they would vote for Biden in the upcoming election and another 12% stated that they planned on voting for Trump. Sanders has been vigorously reaching out to his supporters to ask them to back Biden to defeat Trump in the November election.


Soon after Joe Biden became the presumptive candidate for the Democratic party, he announced that his vice president running mate would be a woman. Analysis began immediately as to the best choice for the party, with three camps emerging.

First were the supporters of a progressive candidate – Elizabeth Warren. The justification for this candidate addressed the issue with Bernie Bros, hoping to drive loyal Sanders to the polls who currently are considering sitting out the election or voting for Trump. Those who oppose Warren believe that Trump will aggressively push a “socialist” messaging campaign that might turn off independent voters.

Second were the supporters of candidates from battleground states in the Midwest, such as Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, former presidential candidate and current senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, and Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin. The justification for these three candidates was the need to recapture the three states that propelled Trump to the presidency in 2016 by a slim margin – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Those who oppose these candidates think that it will hurt Biden in other states with a high minority population, such as North Carolina and Florida. It should be noted that two additional names were added to the battleground states list, although not from the Midwest, as both of New Hampshire‘s senators were requested to be vetted by the Biden team; Maggie Hassan agreed but Jeanne Shaheen declined.

Third were the supporters of women-of-color candidates. The primary reason for one of these candidates is to generate engagement with minorities to drive them to vote in November that mirrored 2012 participation. Some pundits favor African American candidates, such as former presidential candidate and current senator from California, Kamala Harris, Georgia gubernatorial candidate in 2018 and current executive of voter suppression non-profit, Stacy Abrams, and Florida representative Val Demings, one of the seven House Democrats chosen as managers during the Senate impeachment trial. The justification of choosing one of these three candidates is based on data that shows that the share of African Americans who vote is higher than the share of Hispanic voters. Additionally, Biden’s campaign resurrection is directly tied to the support of African Americans in South Carolina and other Midwest states he won during the primary. Other pundits favor Hispanic candidates because this is a weak point for Biden, as Sanders won many of the primaries, like Nevada, that had a larger percentage of Hispanic voters than African Americans. The candidates that meet this profile include, New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto, although the latter withdrew from consideration on May 28.

A dark horse in the VP selection process is Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, as she checks off multiple criteria. She’s from the Midwest and would energize voters in the battleground states, regardless that Illinois is a safe Democratic state. She would be the first Asian American candidate, the fastest growing minority, which is increasingly supporting the Democratic party. Furthermore, her personal story might persuade other demographics to vote for the Biden ticket as she is an Iraq veteran who lost both legs and use of her right arm while on a mission.

Whichever VP candidate Biden chooses will be perceived as the possible 2024 presidential candidate due to his age and previous comments he made that he might only be a one-term president if elected. Thus, additional criticisms of the list have been voiced. For example, some believe Warren is too progressive and would be requesting policies be passed that require raising taxes, while others state that Abrams doesn’t have any government experience, and a third group argues that a battleground state candidate would lead minorities to disengage even more with the voting process in both 2020 and 2024.


In June 2016, PQ Media’s analysis of the political races were indicating a big blue wave that never happened. We monitored over 20 political prediction sites, such as The Cook Report, and each week we continued to see Republican strongholds weaken. Republican safe states became likely, likely became lean, lean became toss-ups, and toss-ups became Democratic lean states. Meanwhile, Democratic toss-ups became lean, lean became likely and likely became safe. We learned a lot can happen in five months as the race tightened by October. What we learned in the post-analysis of the 2016 elections is that many voters did not make up their minds until after Labor Day and more than 10% made the decision the week leading up to the election. Will that occur again in 2020? Most likely, given the uncertainty of the coronavirus outcomes as stay-at-home regulations are relaxed, particularly in the six toss-up states and 10 lean/likely states. Stay tuned.


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