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Do early campaign ads really make a difference in the presidential election?


We're in for the longest presidential campaign in the history of the general election. Neither President Biden nor former President Donald Trump lack name recognition, but millions of dollars are already being spent on campaign ads to persuade only a fraction of voters. Will all that money make a difference? NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro reports.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: In the spring of 2012, Barack Obama was facing a tough reelection fight, so his campaign and the groups supporting him decided to go on the airwaves early and attack his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He's still pushing tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. It's just what you'd expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.

MIKE EARNEST: It turns out that when we built that stage, it was like building my own coffin.

DAVID AXELROD: We went up with an early flight of media that really helped define the race and, frankly, define our opponent in a way that really framed the debate.

MONTANARO: That's David Axelrod, who was a senior strategist on the Obama campaign.

AXELROD: It was our decision to move money from the end of the campaign to the beginning because the truth is that by the time you get to a general election, coverage is so saturated that it's very hard to break through.

KEVIN MADDEN: I always feel like I need, like, a therapist with me when I talk about 2012, but... (laughter).

MONTANARO: Kevin Madden helped run Romney's campaign.

MADDEN: Romney had already secured the nomination, but the campaign was without access to the general election resources that were available after the convention. And so in that crucial time period of the late spring, early summer, the Romney campaign was just exposed, and they essentially carved up Romney in front of that crucial set of swing voters.

MONTANARO: Right now, it's the Biden campaign that's dominating the airwaves and hoping to make a similar impact. His ads are drawing contrasts with Trump...


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For four years, Donald Trump tried to pass an infrastructure law, and he failed. I got it done.

MONTANARO: ...And using Trump's own words to appeal to key groups Biden needs to win over like women, Latinos and Black voters.


DONALD TRUMP: 'Cause for 54 years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated. And I did it, and I'm proud to have done it. They're rapists. They're rapists.

BIDEN: Now, he says, immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country.

TRUMP: They're poisoning the blood of our country. Poisoning the blood...

BIDEN: What the hell is he talking about? He stoked racial violence, attacked voting rights and, if reelected, vowed to be a dictator and, quote, "get revenge."

MONTANARO: Since Super Tuesday, Biden and his allies are spending five times more than groups supporting Trump. That's why people aren't seeing many pro-Trump ads right now. A super PAC supporting Trump is running this ad in Pennsylvania, focusing on immigration.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We have to stop Joe Biden, to close our border.

MONTANARO: But Biden may be spending more out of necessity. He's suffering from low approval ratings, is lagging with key voter groups, and he's behind in many swing state polls.

BRIAN JONES: For someone like President Biden, who has the financial resources, it makes sense for him to spend money right now.

MONTANARO: Brian Jones is a Republican strategist and veteran of presidential politics who ran Chris Christie's super PAC.

JONES: President Biden's in a situation where by many metrics, you have a strong economy, good job numbers, there's a good story to tell. But among a lot of his supporters, there's a sense that the story just isn't getting out.

MONTANARO: Trump, on the other hand, has often commanded news cycles and gained attention without needing to advertise as much as his opponents.

JONES: President Trump, no matter what you think of him, is a unique communicator, right? He is someone who learned how to communicate dealing with the tabloids in New York City for years, and he has an ability to kind of get his message out in a way that very few other politicians have.

MONTANARO: But there are signs that at this point in the campaign, Trump knows he needs more free media attention. Here he is at a rally in Wisconsin earlier this month.


TRUMP: You can see we have an empty podium right here to my right. You know what that is? That's for Joe Biden. I'm trying to get him to debate.

MONTANARO: That may come as a surprise because Trump did not participate in any Republican primary debates. But now Trump does not have as much money on hand as Biden does to run ads. Trump and the Republican National Committee have $100 million less cash on hand compared to Biden and the Democratic National Committee, and groups supporting Trump have had to spend millions to help with his legal fees. Trump being totally shut out on the airwaves can make a difference, especially in a close race.

MADDEN: The campaign that wins is always the campaign that's on offense.

MONTANARO: Again, Kevin Madden.

MADDEN: It gives you a leg up, so to speak, on defining what the race should be about and then presenting your candidate favorably while disqualifying the campaign opponent in the eyes of the persuadable voter. That gets harder and harder to do as the campaign goes on.

MONTANARO: But with two well-known candidates, how much do ads matter?

BRETT GORDON: An ad is kind of effective if one out of a thousand people is kind of nudged to doing something a little bit that they wouldn't have done otherwise.

MONTANARO: Brett Gordon is a marketing professor at Northwestern University who studied campaign ads.

GORDON: I think a big risk for any candidate is tiring out their base with messaging too early. Given the stakes are so high, I'm sure each candidate is willing to spend almost an infinite amount of money with the hopes of shifting just a small number of voters in the right place at the right time.

MONTANARO: No matter the cost, David Axelrod says it's worth it.

AXELROD: There's no doubt that this is trench warfare. It's going to be a very close race, and every marginal advantage you can get is meaningful. Our attitude back in 2012 was you can always raise more money, but you can't raise more time.

MONTANARO: And for campaigns, there's no time like the present.

Domenico Montanaro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.