Hillary Clinton has spent several times what Donald Trump has spent to air television ads in key states. That will likely continue; in a new count by Advertising Age, the Clinton campaign and its allied super PACs have booked $145.3 million in ad time between now and Election Day, to $4.4 million for Trump and his groups.
The disparity has terrified some Republican strategists who fear Trump is being drowned in a tidal wave of Clinton ads. But what if it doesn't really matter?
Take Ohio. Clinton and her allies have been pummeling Trump on TV there, spending many millions more than he has. Yet Trump has climbed in the polls while she has fallen; two recent surveys had Trump ahead by 3 and 5 points, respectively.
"She's got all these offices and staff and ads," one Ohio GOP operative said recently. "But if the election were held today, Trump would win Ohio."
In Florida, Clinton has been on a spending spree, yet the New York Times' Trip Gabriel recently noted that "the tens of millions in TV ads run by Mrs. Clinton and her allies in the state have failed to give her a noticeable advantage." In the RealClearPolitics average of Florida polls, Trump is up by 1 point.
Some Florida political veterans are already saying Clinton is throwing money away on television. "To date, the Clinton campaign has spent $22.3 million on television [in Florida]," Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings said recently, according to an account in the Palm Beach Post. "You give [local Democrats] $22 million and I'll produce more votes for you than a damn television ad."
Cut to last Friday night, in a meeting room at a research company in Alexandria, Va., where the Republican pollster Frank Luntz gathered 30 undecided voters to discuss all aspects of the campaign. Some leaned one way or the other, but most seemed to dislike both Clinton and Trump. When Luntz asked for one-word descriptions of Clinton, he got responses like "deceitful," "liar," "untrustworthy," and "corruption." For Trump, he got "crazy," "unstable," "arrogant," and "megalomaniac."
Luntz played a bunch of ads, from both campaigns and their supporting organizations, asking the focus group members to use a hand-held dial to rate each one.
The dials stayed pretty low for nearly all the ads; most had little effect on the viewers or left them actively hostile to the candidate involved.
There were very few exceptions. An ad in which Clinton promised to work with Republicans did pretty well. And two anti-Clinton ads scored — one cited the FBI's criticism of her in the email scandal and the other featured the retired naval officer who asked Clinton a probing question about her emails and national security at NBC's recent "Commander in Chief Forum."
"It's on the spot, it's not staged, there's no performance," one man said of the naval officer ad.
But most of the ads? The dials stayed flat, flat flat.
"Almost all of the ads bombed because they weren't authentic," Luntz said afterward. "You cannot take clips out of context and expect voters to believe them any more because they've seen it again and again and again."
Luntz also played a set of soundbites from Clinton and Trump talking about Social Security. (The session was sponsored by AARP.) The dials went down time after time. After one Clinton soundbite, Luntz asked why.
"Everything she said there, she's so full of s—t," said one man.
Luntz left the room briefly to talk to reporters who were watching the discussion nearby. "We have now reached the point when even the standard soundbites do not work," Luntz said. "All these traditional lines do not work with anybody."
Returning to the room, Luntz said to the group, "You guys are dialing them both down." What was going on?
"They're lying — they're speaking words but they don't mean anything," said one.
"They both do a great job of making you not want to pick either one of them," said another.
"It sounds like just so much bulls—t, over and over and over," said yet another.
As the session neared its end, one woman noted that Trump already has his base behind him but seems to be doing nothing to reach beyond the base to appeal to people like her. "I don't see any movement by him to try to change to create a different image for people who are uncertain," she said.
"He is not talking to you?" Luntz asked.
"He is not talking to me," the woman said.
"Is Hillary talking to you?" Luntz followed.
"I'm not really listening to her."
Everyone laughed, but there are, apparently, a lot of people like her in the 2016 electorate. What that suggests is that Clinton is probably wasting a lot of money on too many ads, while both she and Trump might be better off if they talked less. This is obviously a different sort of election, and no one should be surprised if voters are reacting to the candidates differently than in the past.