Contributor: Leo Kivijarv, Ph.D., Executive Vice President & Director of Research of PQ Media
Overview: Bring Down the Cone of Silence
Since 2012, PQ Media has been offering opinions and data to the Radio Advertising Bureau during federal elections, and PQ Media has been publishing political media buying estimates since the 2004 elections, with 2022 being the 10th election cycle analyzed. We’ve never experienced any election like 2022, as the narrative changes every month. Since February, we’ve revised our spending predictions at least a half-dozen times due to the unpredictability of this election coupled with unprecedented fundraising.
In February, it looked like a slam dunk for the Republicans to regain both the House and Senate, fueled by President’s Biden’s falling approval ratings due to rising inflation caused by supply chain issues and the unexpected Russian attack on the Ukraine that sent gas prices soaring. In April, political gurus Karl Rove and Doug Sosnik both agreed that the midterm elections would be a “disaster” for the Democrats, according to the Wall Street Journal.
However, by September, the outlook seems rosier for Democrats as Biden’s approval ratings has improved amid falling gas prices, passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a healthy job market, the student loan forgiveness plan, the live House hearings on the January 6, 2021, insurrection, the drama of the FBI, Mar-a-Lago & top-secret files, and most importantly the controversial Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. Roll Call predicted this month that the latter issue has energized the Democratic base and will fuel the highest voter turnout in a mid-term election in almost 50 years, besting 2018’s 50.1% rate, which was more than 10 points higher than the 40-year average of 39.4%. The Kansas primaries is a prime example of this assumption when abortion was on the ballot and the turnout was 47% of registered voters, more than double the normal turnout during previous Kansas primaries.
The result is a Senate that will mostly likely stay in Democratic control, while the House is expected to shift to the Republicans, although by a smaller margin than originally projected in February. How does the changing sentiment impact media buying? In a nutshell, more money is being poured into the Senate races which are in doubt, particularly in select toss-up states. As for the House, Republicans have started to outspend Democratic candidates by a healthy margin once the polls started shifting against them in many states where they once had a comfortable lead in the polls.
Meanwhile, midterm elections more than double the number of gubernatorial races compared with the presidential election (35 in 2022 versus 16 in 2020). As is the case during most recent midterm elections, about one-third are battleground states, heightened in 2022 by the unpopular Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, which led many states to ban abortion without exceptions soon after the ruling. This has spurred an increase in women registering to vote. The other hot topic at the state level is voter suppression, with many Republican-led legislatures passing laws making it more difficult for minorities to vote, using the excuse of voter fraud regardless that there is no evidence to support the claim. It has to be determined if a third hot topic will drive voters to the poll after Florida governor DeSantis flew 50 Hispanic immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses, soon after Texas governor Abbott sent two buses of immigrants to Vice President Harris’ home in Washington, D.C.
The final big question is the influence of former president Donald Trump, who is still promoting the debunked idea that he won the 2020 elections despite reams of evidence to the contrary. During the primaries, there were mixed results for candidates he endorsed. Many elections around the country deemed as “toss-ups” by political election prognosticators often include a Trump-endorsed candidate in the mix. Pundits believe that these candidates will prove to be a detriment to the Republicans in the general election because the independent voters are getting tired of the misinformation and will prefer the Democratic candidate.
Following is an examination of the various election categories – Senate, House, Governor, Local and Referendums. The opinions below are based on analysis of multiple prognostication sites, Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, databases on referendums and down-ballot races, as well as fundraising sites. In addition, PQ Media reached out to its Global Opinion Leader Panel members including political consultants and executives at media companies.
It should be noted that almost every election prognostication site has issued a statement about its ratings methodology, given how badly they were wrong in 2016 and overestimated Biden’s strength during the 2020 election. Post analysis of those two elections found that fewer Republican voters speak with pollsters and/or lie to them, so Republican voters are underrepresented in polling data. That said, mid-term prognostications have proven to be more accurate than during presidential elections, including the 2018 elections when compared against 2016 and 2020, which should be the case again in 2022.
Senate: Agent 99, Would You Believe …?
The main question here is the number of actual toss-up races there will be come November, given the current 50-50 breakdown that periodically requires Vice President Harris to cast the deciding vote. In February, there were 10 such races, whereas in September it has narrowed down to two to seven, depending on the source. For example, USA Today highlighted seven races that could “influence” which party controls the Senate: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. However, Sabato’s Crystal Ball had only two toss-ups: Georgia and Nevada, while Cook’s Political Report and Inside Elections add Arizona.
If one were to look at the last three months of polling, per Five-Thirty-Eight, the Democrats have taken the edge, leading in three of the seven states during the entire three-month period: Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. For the other four states, there has been at least one poll since July that favored the Democratic candidate. According to Cook and Inside, former toss-up states North Carolina and Wisconsin are trending Republican, while Pennsylvania is expected to shift to the Democrats, along with New Hampshire remaining Democratic. Sabato agrees with the polls and has Arizona remaining Democratic.
Thus, the most likely scenario that determines which party wins control of the Senate will be determined by the outcomes of Nevada and Georgia, both of which seem to lean towards the Democrats. In Nevada, Democratic candidate Catherine Cortez Masto has increased her lead over Adam Laxalt since August because there has been a significant rise in women registering to vote after the Roe decision. In Georgia, Democratic candidate Raphel Warnock led comfortably during most of the summer when the Republican candidate Hershel Walker kept making ridiculous statements, such as China sucking out the good air from the United States. However, in late August, Walker took the lead in some polls despite his missteps on the campaign trail. In September, Warnock has regained the lead in polls administered since Labor Day. However, Democratic strategists worry that Warnock could still lose the election due to more stringent measures enacted after the 2020 elections that make it more difficult for minorities to vote in Georgia.
In September, another state was added to the mix that could influence which party controls the Senate: Ohio. For most of the year, the Republicans were heavily favored to win this seat, even before a candidate had been chosen in the primaries. That candidate turned out to be noted author J.D. Vance. The race has tightened, however, because Vance has literally disappeared from the campaign trail, so much so that a “Where’s Vance?” tag line has become commonplace. It has forced super PACs to become involved due to Vance’s poor fundraising.
Due to the plethora of issues driving voters to the ballot box in November, many Senate candidates, and the super PACs that support them, have broken fundraising records, according to Open Secrets. Flush with cash, analysis by AdImpact shows that advertising spend before Labor Day 2022 was approximately twice as much as what was spent during the 2018 mid-term elections during the same time period. –
House of Representatives: Sorry About that Chief!
Recently, former President Clinton registered hope during a CNN interview that Democrats had a slight chance of holding onto the House, but that opinion came with a caveat, “Republicans always find some new way to scare the living daylights out of swing voters,” citing critical race theory behind the cadre of Republican victories in 2021 state elections. Yet, according to the Washington Post, polls show that independents have flipped since April from strongly favoring the GOP in toss-up states to narrowly preferring the Democratic candidate in September.
The road to Republican control looks relatively easy. Currently, Democrats hold a slim 222 to 211 lead with two vacant seats (Indiana 2nd and Florida 13th). The majority is 218 seats. Cook’s Political Report ratings show that 215 Republican candidates have met the criteria of a) being safe, b) likely to win, and/or voters are leaning towards the Republican Party. This means that Republicans would only need to win three of approximately 33 toss-up House elections, including 10 seats in which a Republican is an incumbent. Meanwhile, Democrats are defending more than 20 toss-up seats and would need to win all of them to retain control.
USA Today isolated 11 toss-up races that could decide party control during the 2023-2024 session: California 22nd, Colorado 8th, Maine 2nd, Michigan 8th, New Hampshire 1st, New Jersey 7th, New Mexico 2nd, Nevada 1st, Ohio 1st, Texas 28th and Virginia 7th. Since that list appeared, Cook, Inside and/or Sabato Crystal Ball have seven of those races no longer a toss-up, with Democrats favored in five elections: MI 7th, NH 1st, NV 1st, TX 28th and VA 7th; and Republicans favored in two elections: CO 8th and NJ 7th. Therefore, it might come down to four elections: CA 22nd, ME 2nd, NM 2nd and OH 1st. (It should be noted that Cook, Inside and Sabato all agree there are seven additional toss-ups that USA Today did not discuss: California 27th, Illinois 17th, Kansas 3rd, Minnesota 2nd, Ohio 9th, Ohio 13th and Virginia 2nd.)If Cook is correct with 215 seats on the Republican side, the party would only need to capture the two seats they are now favored to win (CO 8th and NJ 7th) and hold onto only one of the four other Republican toss-up seats: CA 22nd, NM 2nd, OH 1st or CA 27th. Democrats will be hard-pressed to remain in power in the House.
Governor: Missed by That Much, Agent Larabee!
During the 2020 elections, many governors ran on their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governors in Democratic-leaning states touted their strong social-distancing mandates that helped stem the rise of cases and deaths, while governors in Republican-leaning states championed their anti-mask positions, regardless that those policies led to a spike in cases and deaths. In 2022, the messaging has become about abortion, with Democratic candidates defending a women’s right to choose versus Republican gubernatorial candidates pushing for additional legislation. This has helped the Democratic candidates because the economy is usually in the forefront during midterm elections, which is particularly significant in 2022 after months of consumer discontent over inflation and gas prices being pushed aside.
There were seven toss-up elections in February, but that total has shrunk to four in September: Arizona, Kansas, Nevada and Wisconsin. In the other races, gubernatorial candidates seem to be “preaching to the choir” as incumbents in Democratic-leaning states have seen their polling data improve, such as Maine and Michigan, while conversely, incumbents in Republican-leaning states have strengthened their leads in polls, such as Florida and Texas (Note: These polls were taken before immigrants were shipped to other states, as referenced earlier). Republicans are faring worse in gubernatorial seats being flipped, as Massachusetts and Maryland are likely to switch into Democratic hands, whereas no state other than the three toss-up states have that as a possibility.
Local Races: Ludwig Von Siegfried Clones as Opponents
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, this year’s messaging is among the most negative ever seen since rhetoric analysis of commercials began over two decades ago. Within days of Roe being overturned, Democratic candidates for down-ballot seats, such as secretary of state and attorney general, were running cable and streaming ads deploring the decision and specifically calling out their opponents for taking away 50 years of the Constitutional right to choose.
Meanwhile, the issue for mayoral candidates has become diversity since the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. For example, more than 150 mayors signed a “compact to combat hate and extremism” in September 2022, according to the United States Conference of Mayors. In a given year, there are usually more than 400 mayoral races around the country in cities with a population over 10,000, of which less than 10% are in the top-100 cities. That is the case in 2022 with 34 large cities represented, of which only Los Angeles and Milwaukee are being considered toss-up races, according to Ballotpedia.
Referendums: Hymie, I Hope I Wasn’t Out of Line with that Crack About …!
Due to the pandemic, fewer referendums have been placed on the ballot since 2020. In 2022, there are 137 statewide ballot measures, below the average of 164 from 2010 to 2020, according to Ballotpedia. Referendums are important because they are often referred to as “race drivers,” in that they often increase voter turnout when the topic of the referendum is controversial. Such was the case during the Kansas primaries when abortion was on the ballot, as referenced earlier. In states where there is Senate, House or Governor toss-up elections, such as Michigan, the ballot measure could be a deciding factor that could help the Democratic candidate, as past analysis of elections shows Democrats do better with high turnout, while Republicans fare better with low turnout. There are four major ballot measure topics that are being considered “race drivers” in 2022.
Abortion is on six state ballots in 2022, the most ever in a single year (previous high was four in 1986). In addition to Kansas, the other five states with abortion referendums include California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont. Heading into the elections, 19 states have made marijuana legal in previous elections. Five states will be deciding in 2022: Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. Four states, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado and South Dakota, have referendums that are seeking to change the state’s Constitution by adding new amendments. Many of these initiatives being voted upon in 2022 relate to the process of adding referendums to ballots, such as deciding how restrictive the voting process can be in future elections. As a result of the Black Lives Matter protests referenced earlier, five of the 20 states that have language in their Constitutions that permit enslavement or servitude as criminal punishments have ballot initiatives to eliminate such language. The five states with this referendum include Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont. Unfortunately for the Democrats, nine of the 17 states listed above are solidly Republican states, such as the two Dakotas, and two are solidly Democratic, like Oregon. Three others only have a handful of contentious House races in which only one or two DMAs will be impacted rather than the entire state, such as California. Additionally, the Kansas referendum has already been voted upon. That leaves only Arizona and Michigan as states in which these race drivers might prove crucial for the Democratic candidate in a toss-up election.
Tomorrow’s post will cover Political Media Buying 2022