It will come as no surprise that COVID-19 played an outsized role in the TV ad war during the 2020 general elections. The global pandemic would have garnered 24/7 media coverage while driving social media traffic in less interesting times. When you add an accelerant like a presidential election, a political football becomes a political cruise missile.
Election ad spending totaled $8.5 billion in 2020, with ads referencing COVID-19 accounting for approximately $936 million, or 11% of the total. These elections spots appeared at all levels of government, from municipal to federal, and aired more than 1.6 million times on the nation’s airwaves from January 1, 2020 through election day.
A Republican president in office during the beginning of the pandemic coupled with a slow, inefficient government response to the burgeoning public health crisis made it almost inevitable that COVID-19 would redound to President Trump's detriment. The ad data bear that out. Democratic candidates spent $709 million on ads referencing the coronavirus, with the ads appearing over 1.2 million times on broadcast, national and cable TV. This figure is over 300% of the GOP’s ad expenditure on this topic, as the incumbent party in The White House spent nearly $228 million on ads mentioning COVID-19 with 440,000 airings.
Digging deeper into the data, one can discern the differing strategies taken by each party when crafting the messaging surrounding the pandemic. Both parties looked to associate the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 with China. Ads for Democratic candidates that mentioned both COVID-19 and China totaled $7.7 million across 14,000 ad airings. Republicans? A 700% increase over that figure, spending $56 million on 111,000 airings on spots that reference both COVID-19 and China.
Democratic ad makers and consultants chose to focus on the Trump administration’s struggles and errant prognostications concerning the pandemic. Democratic ad spend referencing COVID-19 in combination with an “anti-Trump” message totaled nearly $278 million with 382,000 airings. And there is ample evidence that this served to put the GOP on the defensive. Republican spots which referenced COVID-19 in combination with a “pro Trump” message totaled only $57 million on 100,000 airings, getting “out messaged” on this hot-button topic by a nearly 5 to 1 margin.
Did it work? Given that Biden won the election, the answer appears to be “yes,” but the polling reveals more muddled results. SARS-CoV-2 was a major issue in 2020, but not the only one. On election day, FiveThirtyEight polling indicated that President Trump was underwater by 18 points in a survey of “approve/disapprove” of his handling of the crisis. Furthermore, polling conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in mid-September indicated that a majority [56%] of Americans blamed the U.S. government for the crisis.
However, findings from Pew Research indicate that China’s image in the US has taken a marked downturn in the wake of SARS-CoV-2. By a margin of 73-22, China was on the wrong side of the “unfavorable/favorable” question in polling conducted from mid-June to mid-July 2020. Regarding the initial handling of the virus and assigning blame for its spread, a staggering 78% of US adults blame China. That rate of bipartisanship is rare in our current environment.
A pandemic, excess mortality, lockdowns, recession, increased crime and rioting are not a formula for incumbent party electoral success. Democratic consultants did well to hammer home President Trump’s poor record in handling COVID-19 and ensured that their ad strategy did not allow him to assign blame elsewhere.