Since besting Bernie Sanders and clinching the Democratic nomination in June, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has run at least 17 television ads, either nationally in or key battleground states. In that same amount of time, Donald Trump’s campaign ran a single TV ad—a 10-day buy in four swing states that ends today.
Clinton’s ads have hit Trump on timely issues, like his support from white nationalists, his temperament or his fitness as commander-in-chief. Meanwhile, Trump has stuck to his earned media strategy from the Republican primaries, allowing Clinton to outspend him on TV ads 17 to 1. Pundits are scratching their heads at a campaign that drops millions of dollars on digital ad buys but cedes the airwaves to his opponent. No longer is the narrative that Trump knows something the media doesn’t. In the face of dire poll numbers, which show Trump behind in double digits in important swing states, experts from both sides of the aisle agree—Clinton’s ad strategy is running circles around his.
"Roughly 130 million people will vote in this election for President, and as soon as the conventions are over and the nominees are selected, it becomes a footrace to define your opponent—and yourself," said Will Ritter, who worked on the 2012 Romney/Ryan campaign before co-founding the Republican advertising firm Poolhouse.
Clinton’s general election ads have done just that, Ritter said, pointing to TV ads that call Trump a job exporter or someone who can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons, as well as spots that identify Clinton as likable, steady and presidential—a fighter. "She’s none of these things," he added, "but a person watching the Olympics in a swing state saw these messages 20 or so times. They saw no messages from Trump’s camp, except for what came through on cable news."
For voters who don’t watch the news, Trump may as well have been silent.
When the campaign finally did buy its first TV ads this month, it spent $4.8 million. In contrast, the Clinton campaign has spent $68.2 million on its TV ads so far. "Trump fundamentally doesn’t believe in advertising," said Mark McKinnon, a political consultant who served as chief media advisor to both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. "He’s betting that his ability to drive free media is a more cost-effective way to campaign. While it’s true that voters are much more inclined to believe what they see in the news than in an ad, it is a high-risk strategy to leave the advertising airwaves completely to your opponent."
Without a counterpoint to Clinton’s TV messages, Trump’s support in swing states slipped, to a point that rolling out TV ads now may not help him recover, some say. "It’s a pivot, but it’s so little so late. If you just look at the spends or the GRP, the Clinton campaign is taking states off the table," said Jordan Lieberman, politics and public affairs lead for Audience Partners, an ad targeting firm that has worked with both Democrats and Republicans.
That means states previously thought to be safely Republican are now in danger of going blue in November. "Trump is thinking about places like Missouri and Florida and Arizona, even Utah," Lieberman said. "This is looking a lot more like 1984 than it is 2012," when Walter Mondale lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan.
This defensive posture actually leaves Trump more open to attack. His lone ad is a simple spot, trotting out the familiar bogeymen of illegal immigration, Syrian refugees and a rigged system. The "safety" message echoed the theme of the first day of the Republican National Convention, an event specifically designed to cater to the base, not independents or Democrats with qualms about voting for Clinton.
"It’s speaking to their base, because their base is bleeding," said Lenny Stern, founding partner of SS+K, a creative agency that was the youth agency of record for the Obama media team in 2008 and 2012. "At the same time, in the free press, he’s softening his stance on immigration, and he’s speaking to white audiences about the need to be more sensitive to the African American community. His advertising is inconsistent with his earned media and his free media," giving Clinton’s charges of hypocrisy even more punch. In a year that was supposed to favor outsiders, Stern said Clinton’s campaign has "masterfully redefined the narrative from ‘blow the system up’ to a referendum on Trump."
With only 10 weeks to go before the election, it will be difficult for Trump to shift Clinton’s momentum. His heavy use of social media was once cited by observers as an asset, a secret weapon of sorts. But recent gaffes and his inability to refrain from off-the-cuff tweets have made it a liability. Barring a scandal of some kind, increased spending on broadcast advertising will be necessary for his campaign to have a shot at winning over undecided voters, experts predict. "Reaching primary voters can be done with earned media and rallies," Ritter said. "Getting your message out to 130 million people is harder, and requires a robust, sophisticated, paid media strategy."
Trump's first ad might be a good start. While some may consider his advertising strategy lackluster, viewers think the ad itself isn’t far off the benchmark set by Clinton’s ads. Ace Metrix, a firm that uses a live panel of viewers to score ads on multiple dimensions, gave Trump’s ad average marks among the general population. But among independent voters, it was the top scoring TV ad of August, according to Miriam Tremelling, senior marketing manager at Ace Metrix.
And avoiding substantive issues in any future ads could pay off for Trump. "Her weak points aren’t on policy," Lieberman said. "Her weak points are her health, her email scandal, the Clinton Foundation."
But even if Trump can convince voters Clinton isn’t right for them, actually winning their votes is a tough sell. He still needs to contend with the hand she’s dealt him, Lieberman said. "His negatives are not going down."