Presidential Election Spending Neared $200 million in 2020

Spending reached $150 million in ads on broadcast, $23 million spent on Facebook and $15 million spent on political mail. At minimum.



Michigan Campaign Finance Network


LANSING (Sept. 16, 2021) — The presidential election brought a minimum of $188 million in spending to Michigan in 2020, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s analysis of Federal Election Commission records, advertising tracking from the firm AdImpact and Facebook ad spending data.

Michigan was part of the hat trick of flipped midwestern states that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency in 2018, and the assumption that the road to victory ran through Michigan held through election day. Biden won the state by 154,188 votes, while he and outside groups supporting him vastly outspent Republicans here, indicative here of the hard-fought nature of the race.

It brought a deluge of advertising unlike any Michigan has ever seen, fueled in no small part by dark money. This total amount of spending is undoubtedly higher than this, but given the level of involvement by organizations that avoid disclosure requirements.

Records from the firm AdImpact found $150 million was spent on broadcast advertising over a lengthy Democratic primary and campaign season defined by a pandemic that kept Michiganders largely confined to their homes. Ads ran on television hundreds of thousands of times throughout the state from more than 50 advertisers. Four of the top 10 advertisers were Super PACs which accepted significant dark money contributions. 

By contrast, in 2016 only about $5 million was spent and in 2012 about $29.3 million was spent.

There were early indicators of the extraordinary sums to come nearly a year before the election. Beginning Thanksgiving day, billionaire Michael Bloomberg kicked off an advertising run that totaled more than $12 million in Michigan on advertising alone.

His attempt to break out of an already crowded Democratic primary field failed. By the time of the March primary only two serious contenders remained, Biden and progressive challenger Bernie Sanders, who didn’t come close to the threshold needed to challenge Biden’s path to the nomination.

The nominees lead on their behemoth fundraising machines to gobble up airtime. The $77 million spent by the campaigns slightly exceeded the 68 million spent by outside groups. MCFN has compiled a list of the top 25 broadcast advertisers, available here.

The spending by party, however, was far less balanced. By the time summer arrived, Democrats and their allies pulled away and overwhelmed their Republican counterparts with spending. They were ultimately responsible for about $120 million of the broadcast ads, more than 80% of the overall total.

The second-highest spender on Michigan’s airwaves after the Biden campaign was a super PAC. As was the fourth, the sixth and the eighth. All accepted money from dark money organizations obscuring the sources of their funding. A liberal super PAC called Future Forward ran more than $20 million in ads in the final stretch of the campaign, spending more than $4 million a week throughout October, making it the highest-spending advertiser for three of those weeks. It served almost exclusively to attack President Donald Trump, freeing Biden’s campaign to run on more positive messages.

Facebook was a similar patchwork of unknown advertisers. Facebook’s self-reported data categorized ads from more than 4,500 pages mentioning presidential candidates as political in nature, and that spending totaled a minimum of $23 million dollars. A full explanation of how MCFN tracks Facebook ad spending can be found here.

The campaign and their adjacent joint fundraising PACs comprised more than $13 million of the spending on Facebook advertising. While Biden’s camp spent about $8.2 million, Trump’s campaign and fundraising PAC spent about $5.1 million.

Ads mentioning the presidential candidates from political sources appeared on Facebook news feeds in Michigan minimum of 1 billion times, according to Facebook data analyzed by MCFN.

A significant portion of the spending came from ads that ran throughout the country. Nearly a quarter of the total spending was on ads that made less than 5% of their appearances inside the state. About $10.4 million of the spending was from Facebook ads that ran exclusively in Michigan.

The state parties also played a significant role, primarily with money funneled to them through their national counterparts. The source: ultra-wealthy donors cutting six-figure checks to joint fundraising committees. This, and a volunteer exemption, allow the parties to steer more than $15 million into political mailings to support the presidential candidates.

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