Donald Trump’s Lack of Ad Spending Is Leaving a Hole In Local Media’s Pocket

Hillary Clinton and local races picked up some of the slack

The presidential debates provided plenty of free airtime.Gif: Dianna McDougall; Sources: CNN, Shutterstock

The presidential election has been momentous and memorable: the first woman nominee of a major party, a businessman/reality show candidate, leaked emails, bigly, Ken Bone and Billy Bush.

But local media will remember the 2016 race for what it didn't provide: significant ad revenue.

Media forecasting firm Magna originally projected this year's political ad spend to be 15 percent above 2012, which would have set a new record. But current forecasts put the ad buy in line with the 2012 campaign.

"[Donald Trump] is not nearly spending what Mitt Romney or John McCain's campaigns did eight years ago," said Mark Fratrik, svp and chief economist for BIA Kelsey. "That disappointed the outlooks of local media companies."

Local TV ad sales were underwhelming despite a 10 percent increase this year. "Good, but it fell below our anticipations," added Vincent Letang, evp of global market intelligence for Magna.

Around $2.8 billion was booked in local political TV ad sales this year, up 3 percent from 2012 dollars. It's particularly not impressive because a total of $20 billion was spent on local TV ads overall, excluding political ads.

"When Trump was a candidate in the primaries, he spent very little," said Letang. "We thought once he got the nomination and gained more access to GOP fundraising, he'd spend closer to what Romney did during his general election [of 2012]. That didn't happen."

But it's not just Trump's underwhelming spend that surprises analysts.

"We all thought Virginia would continue to be a battleground state for the campaigns. But it just isn't. [Hillary] Clinton has been spending more in Arizona, which comes as a surprise," Letang said.

Close Senate and governor races have helped fill the political ad gap created by the presidential campaigns.

For example: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence created an empty seat when he joined Trump on the Republican ticket for president. Fratrik similarly noted the close senatorial and gubernatorial races in Florida, traditionally a battleground state as well.

"The presidential race is only about a third of the total political spending in an election cycle," said Letang. "The bulk of spending is on congressional, gubernatorial and local ballots."

The presidential campaigns also took some of that TV money and moved it to digital which offers a "low cost" option for marketers, according to Fratrik.

According to the forecast report from Magna released in earlier this month, "digital advertising sales will equal TV ad dollars for the first time, with both generating $68 billion, a market share of 38.5 percent."

Earlier this year, an IAB report found that digital media matches TV as a source of information about candidates. In fact, more than a third of registered voters claimed that digital sources would be their "most important method of getting candidate information."

Engaged U.S. voters, the IAB report also stated, find digital media and TV as essentially equal in importance as primary sources of information about presidential candidates and political issues. 

"Overall, it's still a strong year for political ads," said Fratrik. "Since campaigns are saving money by using digital marketing, there's plenty of money left for over-the-air television ads and local cable."

"One could argue you'd spend an enormous amount of money to reach a small amount of people [through local TV ads], but they can make or break an election, especially in swing states," said Letang.