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Trump retreats from advertising in key battlefields

Gregory Korte, Bill Allison and Mario Parker
Bloomberg News

Washington — President Donald Trump’s campaign has canceled $4.5 million in ad buys in key battleground states this week, raising more signs of trouble for his reelection effort, even as Democratic nominee Joe Biden expands his advertising footprint.

Faced with a shrinking cash balance, Trump has pulled back on television ads in all but three states where the race is close: Arizona, Florida and Georgia. And his ads have disappeared from must-win states like Ohio and Iowa, where he and Biden are essentially tied.

President Donald Trump speaks about the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg after a campaign rally at Bemidji Regional Airport, Friday in Bemidji, Minn.

Biden is taking advantage of Trump’s retrenchment by widening the map, pouring $16 million more into 13 battleground states and districts as he seeks to create multiple paths to the magic number of 270 electoral votes that would put him in the White House.

With 40 days left until the election, the presidential campaign is focused intensely on a dozen battleground states where the race is close. Biden leads in national polls, but the winner needs to prevail in the industrial Midwest as well as new battlegrounds like North Carolina and Arizona to achieve an Electoral College victory. And neither wins without Florida.

To make up for its constrained ad budget, the Trump campaign is relying on local news coverage from campaign rallies and visits from key surrogates, according to three campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

Trump’s Las Vegas trip earlier this month was worth the equivalent of more than $5 million in ads, a campaign official said. Ivanka Trump can also dominate local news on her campaign stops, generating coverage that’s akin to paid 30-second advertisements, the people said.

Trump used a similar strategy four years ago to overcome Hillary Clinton’s 3-to-1 advertising advantage. But in 2020, Trump’s rallies are held in smaller venues, getting smaller crowds and less news coverage than four years ago.

Outside campaign strategists say Trump’s undisciplined message dilutes the effect of his visits.

“You may be all over the local news, but when your candidate is saying that COVID affects hardly anybody, have you bought a negative ad for Joe Biden, or a negative ad for yourself?” said political strategist Reed Galen, who worked on campaigns for George W. Bush and John McCain and now leads the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group.

Trump is facing an unprecedented cash gap for an incumbent. Biden and the Democratic National Committee ended August with $466 million in the bank compared to $325 million for Trump’s reelection effort.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has spent just two-thirds of the money it’s raised, the lowest burn-rate heading into September in the history of the seven presidential campaigns that have opted out of accepting federal matching funds. Trump’s campaign has spent 79% of the money it’s raised, faster than his 2016 burn rate of 70%.

Legal fees of $11.3 million through August are more than four times higher than they were at the same point four years ago, driven in part by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference into the 2016 election. It’s also gotten itself into smaller legal battles, like a $315,760 bill to a law firm that’s suing a small Wisconsin television station that aired an ad by the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA Action.

Trump also spent a lot on ads early on, including more than $10 million on a pair of 30-second Super Bowl spots and more than $40 million airing ads in May in June, with little impact on the polls. In 2016, Trump didn’t top $50 million in ad spending until Oct. 11.

The campaign has also paid $156,785 for aerial banners, and $477,000 to the company that put on the fireworks display at the Republican convention, the equivalent of a week’s worth of ads in Iowa.

The Trump campaign is pulling back on ads at the very moment it had hoped to be taking money in. The campaign reserved millions in advertising in September, saying it would be “guided by the election calendar” in focusing on states with early voting.

But with early voting already underway in Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Trump has pulled nearly $1 million in ads in those three states this week.