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What We Can Learn From How Much A Campaign Spends On Political Ads


Every year, spending on political ads goes up. This presidential election, it's expected to top $1 billion. Keith Romer from our Planet Money podcast has been wondering what it's like to be on the receiving end of all that cash.


KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: Danielle Butterfield is the paid media director for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. And even she acknowledges that political ad buying this year is a little over the top.

DANIELLE BUTTERFIELD: It's an insane amount of money that is being invested to influence the outcome of this election.

ROMER: Priorities USA alone plans to spend almost $200 million on just the presidential campaign, which, Butterfield says, is harder than it sounds.

BUTTERFIELD: It is easy to spend $200 million ineffectively. And it is a lot more difficult to spend it strategically.

ROMER: Michael Beach worked on the Bush, McCain and Romney campaigns. And he says it can cost a lot to try to get your candidate past the 50% mark.

MICHAEL BEACH: You've got to get 50 plus one. It has to happen in this market. And so you spend whatever it takes. And so the prices go crazy.

ROMER: Beach is now the CEO of Cross Stream Media, an advertising analytics company. According to him, the Trump and Biden campaigns are trying to keep their strategies secret. But the ways the campaigns spend their TV ad dollars leave all these clues into the parts of the country they think hold the key to victory.

BEACH: If they're both somewhere, you know, you know their data both matches up, that's the hot place.

ROMER: Rayid Ghani was the chief data scientist for the 2012 Obama campaign. He says these choices about where the campaigns target their spending come from extensive information they have about all of us.

RAYID GHANI: For every registered voter in the U.S. across different states, we have historical data that's called a voter file.

ROMER: The file has your name, your address, what primaries you voted in and a number.

GHANI: Every voter gets a score. Let's say if you're in the Biden campaign, every voter most likely has a score from zero to 100. And 100 is definitely supporting Biden. Zero is definitely supporting Trump.

ROMER: The score comes from your interaction with previous years' campaigns or whether you gave money. And if for some reason the campaigns don't have all that information about you, Ghani says they can still do a pretty good job of modeling how you'll vote based on your age, race and where you live. The campaigns combine all that data with internal polling to decide where their ad money will make the biggest difference to their electoral chances, like the hometown of software engineer Kelly Goetshe (ph), Wausau, Wis. Goetshe says political ads are everywhere right now.

KELLY GOETSHE: If you're on TV, if you're on the radio, if you're on Facebook, so it's as pretty inescapable.

ROMER: According to numbers collected by data company Advertising Analytics, the top markets for presidential TV ads are in swing states like Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. But Planet Money's analysis of that data says that the Wausau, Wis., TV market has the highest rate of presidential TV ad spending in the country - so far, about $27 worth of TV ads for each registered voter.

GOETSHE: I've been through many presidential elections here. This is the worst I've seen it by a factor of five.

ROMER: Kelly Goetshe says Wausau was already very politically polarized.

GOETSHE: Even with friends, you know, you don't really want to bring that stuff up because it's just going to lead to arguing.

ROMER: All the campaign ads, he says, have just furthered the political divide.

Keith Romer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "GOLDEN WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith Romer has been a contributing reporter for Planet Money since 2015. He has reported stories on risk-pooling among poker players, whether it's legal to write a spin-off of the children's book Goodnight Moon and the time one man cornered the American market in onions. Sometimes on the show, he sings.