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Will the 2018 Midterm Elections Be a Local TV Bonanza?

July 10th, 2018   ||    by Todd Wasserman

For the TV advertising industry, the 2018 midterm elections will test two prevailing notions about advertising and politics. The first is that TV advertising is a dying medium. The second is that voters don’t care about midterm elections.

Thanks to a dramatically polarized post-2016 electorate, analysts are expecting a bigger-than-usual bump in advertising this time around—and much of it will be on TV.

What Are the Predictions?

While everyone foresees that spending will be higher than in 2014—the last midterm election—no one agrees on a specific prediction. Cook Political Report predicts the total TV ad spend will be $3.2 billion, compared to $2.8 billion in 2014. The increase isn’t just a reflection of rising inflation, however. Cook points out that while the number of seats in play—42 in the House and nine in the Senate—are comparable to 2014, more of this year’s races are considered competitive, thanks to enthusiasm among the Democratic base and a Republican countereffort to neutralize that threat. There are also four more governor’s races in 2018 than in 2014, and 12 of those 17 are toss-ups.

Finally, some 30 percent of political ad spending will be around down-ballot races for state legislators and for state referendums in California, among other states. Breaking down the prediction, Cook expects $2.4 billion in political ad spending to go to local broadcast and $850 million to local cable.

Borrell Associates, meanwhile, predicts $2.5 billion in political ad spending this year, with $1.9 billion going to broadcast and $607 million going to cable, according to a MediaPost article. Taking into account all midterm spending, Borrell predicts an $8.5 billion political ad market, which is just 2.5 percent more than 2014. Magna also predicts political ad spending in 2018 could rise as much as 20 percent compared to 2014, Broadcasting & Cable reported.

Will This Election Really Be Different?

President Trump’s surprise 2016 electoral victory—which transpired despite his losing the popular vote—has stoked passions among liberals and left-leaning voters, translating into higher levels of fundraising. In May, MarketWatch estimated that candidate fundraising was up 29 percent compared to the same period in 2014. At the same time, FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of polls showed a roughly five-point lead for Democrats. That’s down from 12 percent or so in January, leaving predictions of a “blue wave” this year less sure.

TV Is Still on Top—for Now

Though many argue that TV advertising is no longer as effective as it was, it’s still the go-to medium for political advertising. Borrell, for instance, estimates that digital and social media will account for a combined $2.8 billion, with TV taking the bulk of the $8.5 billion total.

Analysts bake election spending into their forecasts, so even a large increase in political TV ad spending may not be enough to counter macro trends of cord-cutting and digital video viewership. That’s why Zenith is predicting a 0.4 percent drop in spending for 2018, another Broadcasting & Cable article explained.

A sure-to-be passionate 2020 election cycle (plus February’s Olympics) will be enough to counter that long-term trend, but the real question is whether the bump in ad spend could be an aberration.

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