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Clinton is buying twice the TV ads, but Trump is gaining in polls

Gone are the days when Donald Trump could rely on endless free media — now he's buying TV ads like any other candidate.
Hillary Clinton/YouTube

Gone are the days when Donald Trump could rely on endless free media. His impromptu calls into cable news studios may have been enough to smother his Republican primary opponents, but the general election has Trump buying TV ads like any other candidate.

Still, for the past month, he's only put out half as many campaign ads as Hillary Clinton, for half the cost according to a study put out this week by the Wesleyan Media Project. While Clinton has pumped out over 50,000 ads for around $35.5 million, Trump has only gotten about 27,000, spending $14 million.


The market breakdown shows Clinton spots making up 60 percent of all political ads in Toledo, Ohio to 73 percent in PIttsburgh, Pennsylvania to 80 percent in Des Moines, Iowa.

Despite Clinton's market domination, the polls are still moving to Trump,

"Pro-Clinton ads have outnumbered pro-Trump ads by over two to one in the past month, and yet the polls have moved in Trump's direction during that same time frame," said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that ads aren't working this year, but it does suggest that the larger media narrative has been more important than exposure to advertising in moving voters," Ridout said in the report.

One big difference this year is that outside groups are not playing as big a role in helping the campaigns pay for ad buys, particularly on the Republican side.

Last time around, Obama's campaign put out over 77,000 ads for around $40 million and Romney's 22,000, spending $13.8 million. It was outside spending, however, that bridged the ad gap: big donors kicked in enough that all totaled, pro-Obama ads hit over 85,000 and pro-Romney ads around 67,000.

"Contrary to what we saw this summer, the major reason for the decline in advertising on the Republican side over the last month is not that the Trump campaign has been sitting back but that outside groups have not come in to help him like they did with Romney in 2012," said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.


Related: The 1% want President Hillary Clinton

If you factor in ads from her party and outside groups, Clinton's total ad numbers shoot up from 50,000 to 61,800 -- Trump's only go from 23,000 to 27,000.

"It's clear Trump has an edge in free media, not all of that is positive, but one downside of Clinton having so many ads is she's had to spend time fundraising instead of campaigning," said Richard Skinner of the Sunlight Foundation, the pro-transparency nonprofit. "That's not the worst way for her to spend her time, necessarily, she's not the most charismatic candidate, and she's got her own VP candidate, the President, the First Lady, now she's got Sanders out there."

"Trump has what, Giuliani, Christie?" he added.

Trump's rogue candidacy has led donors, and the GOP itself, to save their money for downballot races, and the advertising numbers bear that out. Most of the biggest donors to Romney in 2012 have yet to donate to Trump.

While the total number of ads isn't as high as 2012, outside groups are contributing to the campaigns at an all-time high, paying for 45 percent of all 2016 Senate ads to date. Democratic outsiders have put up 40 percent of the ad money for their candidates, while Republicans donors and groups have covered over half of their side's spending. That's up from 49 percent in 2014, and only 18 percent of the share in 2010.

"Big Republican donors have wanted to focus on the Senate side and fund the groups that back those campaigns," Skinner said. "They're much more focused on [Pennsylvania Sen.] Pat Toomey, [Ohio Sen.] Rob Portman, guys who they feel more comfortable with."

Follow Brendan James on Twitter at @deep_beige