WASHINGTON — Democrats are losing the impeachment ad war — and they don’t seem to care.
Republicans have outspent Democrats by a huge margin on impeachment ads since the House formally launched its impeachment inquiry in late September, with more than $15 million in total GOP paid advertising on the topic compared to roughly $5 million on the Democratic side.
The numbers are even more lopsided on TV ads targeting the races that will decide the House majority: roughly $12 million from GOP groups compared to $1.5 million from Democrats. As the GOP leans into paid media on impeachment, Democrats are saving their money for other priorities.
It’s a big strategic gamble — especially as impeachment heads to the Senate.
“We have a convincing case to make, but if we’re not matching their volume, people may never hear it,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who is involved with a number of Democratic outside groups. “Right now we have an opportunity to go on offense in a country that believes what the president did was wrong. The longer we wait to do that, the more the tables will turn.”
But even when groups have jumped on the airwaves to help House Democrats, they’re not focusing much on impeachment.
The House Majority Fund, a Democratic-aligned outside group, launched $2.5 million in ads to shore up their most vulnerable members, who have faced millions in impeachment-related attack ads. But rather than try to litigate impeachment, they’re running ads touting Democrats’ push to lower prescription drug prices.
There’s a logic to the Democrats’ strategy. Impeachment has received wall-to-wall media coverage, and polls show most voters have made up their minds on the issue. Democrats’ ads touting their prescription drug bill helps their members push back on claims they’re not doing anything besides impeaching Trump.
“There’s no shortage of information about impeachment,” said House Majority Forward spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki. “The strategy behind this flight of ads is to help break through the noise and make sure constituents understand the [other] work that is going on.”
But the most most crucial group of voters in the country are those who can still be persuaded on their views of Trump, whether they’re in key House districts or big presidential swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arizona. Right now, Democrats are doing little to use paid media for impeachment messaging in those places.
Republicans say their opponents are trying to change the subject.
“It says that they do not want to have a conversation about impeachment and they are actively trying to change the conversation. They are trying to run from impeachment, despite impeachment being the defining decision of this Congress,” said Dan Conston, the head of American Action Network — the GOP-aligned group that’s spent the most of any organization on impeachment.
Targeting vulnerable Democrats
The AAN has aired about $8.5 million worth of ads total targeting vulnerable House Democrats, combined with another $3.5 million from pro-Trump America First Action. Those ads have pushed the argument that Democrats just want to impeach the president no matter what — and are wasting taxpayers’ money and time rather than working on other issues that could help voters.
Conston argues those ads have done some damage. His group recently released polling that found voters in three red-leaning districts were less likely to back their freshman Democratic incumbents if they voted to impeach Trump.
Overall, polling has found the public closely divided on the question to impeach Trump. There’s been little movement on that question since impeachment began in late September, though there are some signs it’s shifted a little in Trump’s direction in recent weeks.
There’s a gap of less than one point between those supporting impeachment and those opposing it in a Tuesday average of national polls — numbers that are nearly identical to national surveys from early October, right after Democrats launched the inquiry.
That hasn’t deterred vulnerable Democrats: A bevy of freshmen from tough districts have recently announced they’ll vote for impeachment. Only time will tell whether those votes end up looking like sound political calculations or end up costing them their jobs.
The disparity in ad spending is being driven by a number of political calculations and the different political realities in the House and the Senate and on the 2020 presidential map.
Trump has loudly demanded allegiance from the GOP, and that includes on ad spending. Republican outside groups traditionally have a lot more money to play with. They also have a lot more offensive opportunities in the House map — impeachment isn’t going to be a winning issue for the 31 Democrats in Trump districts. That could change as impeachment moves to the Senate, where Democrats have the chance to go on offense against vulnerable Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.)
A GOP fundraising bonanza
President Trump and the Republican National Committee have also spent $2.3 million on anti-impeachment ads since late September, when the impeachment inquiry was formally announced. But much of that has been spent on digital ads aimed at fundraising rather than persuading swing voters — only $400,000 of that total was spent in the five biggest battleground states.
By contrast, major Democratic groups have combined to spend less than $4 million total on impeachment, according to ad trackers. Defend American Democracy, a pro-Democratic veterans’ group, spent about $1.5 million on TV ads to target 14 House Republicans with ads calling for them to “stop putting politics ahead of our country and hold the president accountable.”
Need to Impeach, Tom Steyer’s pro-impeachment group, has spent another $750,000 nationally on digital ads, while Steyer spent $1.5 million of his presidential campaign funds on the issue. ACRONYM, a new Democratic dark money group, has so far spent about $350,000 on digital ads on the topic. That’s less than the $700,000 spent on pro-impeachment ads by the Wisconsin-based spice company Penzeys, whose liberal owner on a lark decided to run anti-impeachment ads.
Right now, neither side is spending heavily on impeachment ads in the key presidential swing states.
Trump has run a fair amount of digital ads but they’ve been targeted indiscriminately — there hasn’t been a ton more spending in the states that will decide the presidential race than in other places. He’s been matched in digital spending in the key swing states by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA — but they’ve been laser-focused on convincing swing voters that Trump is bad for them economically, and haven’t spent a dime on impeachment ads.
“This is a story that is getting wall-to-wall coverage,” said Priorities USA spokesman Josh Schwerin. “Right now it’s a better use of resources to get voters to hear about kitchen-table issues.”
CORRECTION Dec. 20, 2019, 11:15 a.m.: This story previously misstated the name and amount of money spent on impeachment ads by ACRONYM.
Cover: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, exits after a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)