Hot races, new battleground status make Phoenix tops for political ads

(Video by Alexander Gaul/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A slew of high-profile races and Arizona’s new status as a battleground state made Phoenix the top market in the country for television political advertising during this election season, according to a recent report.

Those factors, along with the fact that the Phoenix market dominates Arizona as few other large cities do in their states, combined to push Phoenix ahead of cities, such as Pittsburgh, Orlando and Detroit, in other battleground states.

Political campaigns spent $270.1 million on television ads in the Phoenix market, which included $101.9 million on the presidential race alone, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

“The most important part of Arizona, from an electoral perspective, Maricopa County, is all within the Phoenix DMA (Designated Market Area),” said Ben Taber, an account manager with Advertising Analytics. “So you can really put all of your money into this one market instead of diluting it across six or seven markets like some of these other big states.”

The data shows that more than $332 million was spent on all races, on all platforms, in all markets in Arizona so far this year.

It’s a sharp change from 10 years ago, when Phoenix and Arizona received little national advertising attention as a traditionally Republican stronghold.

“We used to not get one presidential ad in the state,” said Doug Cole, chief operating officer at Arizona Highground. “Not one, on television. Nothing. Zero … That started changing about 10 years ago.”

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Cole said that the first signs of a shift came in 2008, when Barack Obama’s campaign bought ads in Arizona to counterprogram the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, his Republican opponent for the White House.

While Obama won the election, McCain won Arizona by more than 8 percentage points.

Since then, the gap between Republican and Democratic political spending has narrowed across the state. But few could have predicted the record levels of ad spending in 2020, even in races far down the ballot.

“The advertising is getting a lot deeper, meaning that it’s not just these big races,” said Rich Barone, vice president at Cox Media. “We saw a lot of advertising from different congressional districts… It’s amazing how important every seat is now.”

Cox Media is one of Phoenix’s largest television providers. Barone attributes the rise in advertising to Arizona’s increased national electoral importance and its changing electorate.

“I think what you are seeing is the Democratic Party senses a weakening in Arizona, and is just going nonstop to try and flip it Democratic,” Barone said.

Advertising Analytics’ data supports Barone’s theory. It shows Democrats spent $163.8 million in Arizona on ads for the presidential, Senate and the top two House races through Oct. 16, compared to $98.5 million for Republicans on the same races in the same period.

“It’s not necessarily normal for Arizona, but it is kind of the trend of this year that we’ve seen across the board,” Taber said. “Democratic candidates in particular are … fundraising really well.”

The Senate race between Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic challenger Mark Kelly is the most expensive race in the state, exceeding even presidential spending by $24 million. Kelly, who consistently raised and spent more through the campaign than McSally, was leading in early returns.

With a number of hyper-competitive races over the last few election cycles, and victories by Democrats in 2018, Cole said, Arizona is shifting from its traditional red to a vivid purple.

“Arizona is in play,” Cole said. “Just the mere fact that we are wall-to-wall, television advertisements, internet ads, etc., really shines a light on the importance of every voter in Arizona participating in this election.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Alex Gaul of Illinois is a broadcast journalist with a lifelong passion for telling stories. Gaul, whose high school TV station won six student Emmys, reports for Cronkite News and is an anchor for Cronkite Sports.