Elections 2024: The Great Unknowns

Highlights of the Data & Trends from PQ Media’s preliminary Political Media Buying 2024

Contributor: Dr. Leo Kivijarv, EVP/Research, PQ Media

For the seventh time since 2012, PQ Media is sharing its outlook on political media buying from its election cycle report with RAB members. During a recent presentation, I noted how this election cycle differs significantly from every previous cycle due to a plethora of unanswered questions that still exist. Some of these questions come seven months before the elections, which for this blog I’m calling the Great Unknowns – there are 20. That’s how unpredictable this year’s election cycle has become in determining how much will be spent by candidates, political action groups (PACs) and advocacy groups promoting or objecting to a ballot referendum.

The Great Unknowns

Presidential Candidates: Five Great Unknowns

It all starts with former president, Donald Trump. He is the first former president to face legal charges through a myriad of civil and criminal lawsuits, two of which he has already lost, although both are in the appeal process. The first Great Unknown is whether he can legally run for office if he is found guilty in any of the criminal law cases, and/or serve if elected. The second great unknown is whether any of those criminal law cases, other than the one currently being held in New York, will reach the trial stage before the 2024 election and/or inauguration.

During a recent presentation, I postulated that the topic might prove important during the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee in July if the current New York court proceedings don’t turn out favorable for the former president and he is convicted, including time served in jail. If that were to occur, the third Great Unknown relates to the would-be candidate who replaces him, given the splintered nature of the Republic Party this year. While the former U.S. delegate to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, might be seen as the perfect choice given polls showing she would probably defeat current president, Joe Biden, she does not have the support of the far-right MAGA political arm that currently holds sway over the party. Meanwhile, current Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, once the favorite child of the Republic Party to replace Trump if he was jailed, proved to be extremely unlikable on the national stage by the moderate side of the party. Others who ran for president during this cycle, like former vice president Mike Pence, entrepreneur businessman Vivek Ramaswamy or current South Carolina Senator, Tim Scott, don’t have enough backing from the party to be a significant option. Thus, does a wild-card candidate emerge, such as current Texas Senator, Ted Cruz, or current Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, among others?

The fourth Great Unknown would occur if this worst-case scenario for the Republican party has repercussions on the dynamics of the Democratic party. That is, if another Republican candidate is selected instead of Trump, and polling shows that this candidate would defeat Biden during the November election, does the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August become chaotic as delegates argue whether a different candidate should run for the highest office? If yes, who is that candidate? Current vice president, Kamala Harris, would be the leading contender, but there is a faction of the Democratic Party that doesn’t support her due to a cadre of negative publicity she generated during the first two years in office. Other frontrunners include current California Governor Gavin Newsom, current U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg and current Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, among others. Like the Republican Party, will a wild-card candidate emerge in the Democratic Party, such as current New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or former first lady, Michelle Obama? If this worst-case scenario occurs, the fifth Great Unknown is whether there is enough time to place the two replacement candidates onto the ballots of all 50 states and U.S. territories.

Targeting Voters: 11 Great Unknowns

The sixth Great Unknown has nothing to do with the candidates, but which voters to target. In past elections, the answer was easy – the undecided voter, particularly those in battleground states that election prognosticators, such as The Cook Political Report (CPR), have identified. For example, during the 2024 presidential election, CPR identified Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as the six battleground states, as of April 2024. However, this year’s election differs given the issues the two current candidates face. For the Republican party, the major issue is Trump’s negative image with moderate Republican voters. This includes many former Trump White House officials who have publicly decried another Trump presidency, such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former chief of staff John Kelly, among others. Thus, the seventh Unknown is whether more money will be spent to persuade the moderate Republicans to support Trump in the general election. For the eighth Unknown, we turned to the opposite side of the spectrum and looked at the MAGA loyalists who continue to support Trump. Will they vote? That is, so much propaganda on voter fraud has been released by Trump and his allies, that there is concern that the loyalists will be afraid to cast a ballot if they believe the system is rigged. Thus, money might need to be diverted to this target audience to make sure they do, indeed, turn out to vote. The ninth Great Unknown is whether there is enough money to target this myriad of target audiences. With the recent election of Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, to co-head the Republican National Committee, donated money has already been diverted to Trump’s legal woes and to falsely promote the rigged 2020 election narrative, rather than supporting Senate and House candidates currently facing a toss-up election for their seats.

The tenth Great Unknown is Biden’s electability, given his standing among the undecided swing voters, many of whom believe the economy is doing poorly due to the rampant inflation in 2023 that raised prices on many common commodities like food, shelter and transportation. The Democratic party is under pressure to provide messaging to counter that attitude, as the reality about the U.S. economy is that it is rebounding better in 2024 than most other countries, including Great Britain, Germany and Japan. The eleventh Great Unknown relates to select die-hard Democratic voters who perceive Biden as too old to run for office, which has been pushed by Trump and his allies, including conservatives on cable news channels. How much campaign money needs to be diverted to this vocal section of the Democratic party? The twelfth Great Unknown is the Hispanic voter. In the past, the Democratic party could expect approximately 75% of Hispanic voters to support the party’s candidate. That is no longer true. Younger Hispanic voters are no longer considered a shoo-in for the Democratic party, particularly immigrants who have arrived in the United States from a country that currently has an autocratic regime, such as many Nicaraguan Americans in Florida favoring the Republican Party instead. Meanwhile, the thirteenth Great Unknown is the African American voter, whom the Democratic party used to receive about 90% of their support. However, many African American voters don’t believe the Biden administration has done enough to address the issues of the Black Lives Movement (BLM), particularly with many battleground states doing away with diversity programs. Thus, does money need to be diverted away from the swing voter to appease the African American voter? Unfortunately for the Democratic party, a fourteenth Great Unknown blindsided them. In October 2023, the Hamas-Israel conflict began and has seen unspeakable acts by both sides in the ensuing seven months since. Many Democratic constituents have had an unfavorable opinion of the Biden Administration’s policies since then, including Arab-Americans, Jewish-Americans and young voters, that have included demonstrations on college campuses. It came to a head during the Democratic primaries when over 10% of the ballots came back “uncommitted” rather than a vote for Biden. Are additional campaign finances needed to target this audience to vote for Biden in November?

Finally, there is the loyal voter who needs to be reminded to cast the ballot. A new phrase has appeared in 2024 to define this time of voter – the “broken-glass” voter, someone who is described as a voter who will “walk on broken glass” to make sure that their preferred candidate will get elected, such as Trump’s MAGA voters who sought to have alternative electors for the 2020 elections. This becomes the fifteenth Great Unknown as to how much money to spend to reach this audience. However, there are also broken-glass voters who would walk on broken glass to stop a candidate they vehemently oppose from getting elected, such as voters in states that made an effort to keep Trump off the November ballot, such as Colorado. The sixteenth Great Unknown is whether to divert more money towards this disenfranchised voter rather than the loyal voter.

Down Ballots: Four Great Unknowns

The final Great Unknowns are associated with state and local races, also known as “race drivers.” A race driver is a down-ballot candidate or issue referendum that drives a disproportional number of voters to the polls, which can affect the outcome of the up-ballot federal candidates and lead to unexpected upsets. In the past, leading race driver issues included: legalizing marijuana, casinos/sports betting and eminent domain (taking of someone’s property to build a state or federal building or highway). An example of a race driver candidate is a conservative or liberal judge who could impact a current or future state law that favors one political party over the other.

The seventeenth Great Unknown is the repercussions of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the controversial abortion ruling of Roe v. Wade. In recent special elections in Republican-dominated Kansas and Ohio, voters turned out in record numbers to keep existing abortion policies over more restrictive-Republican-led initiatives to increase the ban. The controversy expanded in 2024 when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Alabama on its strict in-vitro policy that had just been enacted, followed by the Arizona Supreme Court ruling that enforced an abortion law written in 1864. As such, three states already have protective rights on the ballot (Florida, Maryland and New York), and another 10 are considering adding the referendum, including battleground states Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada. When Florida added it in recent weeks, some Biden campaign officials postulated that Florida could become a battleground state as a result.

The eighteenth Great Unknown is another referendum issue, voting rights. Recent changes enacted in the 2020-2023 period have made it easier to vote in swing states such as Michigan, but harder to vote in North Carolina and Wisconsin. A national campaign has started featuring former West Wing actor Martin Sheen, who played the president in the TV series, requesting that viewers sign petitions to put voting rights on more state ballots in 2024, particularly in battleground states. This is especially important to people of color, who have seen Republican gerrymandering, and other policies limit their access to the ballot box and weaken the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The nineteenth Great Unknown is candidates for state offices besides the governor. For example, numerous states have a Republican candidate for secretary of state who is a 2020 election denier This could impact how the 2024 election results are handled if Trump loses. The chaos caused in December 2023 and during the insurrection on January 6, 2021, might become moot if these candidates are elected. The twentieth Great Unknown occurs at the local level, in which board of education candidates is now under the microscope after controversial “anti-woke” Moms for Liberty candidates began sweeping into office earlier in the decade, leading to the mass banning of books and the elimination of diversity programs. As such, in 2024, many dollars are being funneled into the campaigns of candidates who wish to oust incumbent Moms for Liberty and MAGA officials who have instituted policies unpopular with the majority of voters. How much will these anti-woke candidates impact federal elections?

Conclusions About the Great Unknowns

With 20 Great Unknowns, lots of fundraised dollars are being diverted to places never seen before. This has left numerous struggling incumbents worried that money earmarked for their campaigns will never arrive, thus putting them at a disadvantage to their opponents. In the past, it was simply about the Republican and Democrat parties controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. That is not the case in 2024, although that is still an ultimate goal. Democrats know they are vulnerable in 2024 – the president’s approval rating is the lowest of any incumbent president who is not dealing with an economic recession. A majority of the Senate battleground races are Democratic candidates, particularly with the loss of one seat in West Virginia to Republicans after Senator Manchin decided not to seek reelection. In the House of Representatives, the toss-up races are split almost evenly among the Republicans and Democrats, thus the Democrats are in a worse position if it stays the status quo and both parties retain those seats in question.

Next week, I will delve into initial projections for 2024 Political Media Buying.


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