Warning: Your TV is about to explode. Political ads are skyrocketing

Ad spending for each two-year election cycle by all U.S. political campaigns.
Ad spending for each two-year election cycle by all U.S. political campaigns.
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Fourteen months ahead of the next presidential election, the political ad wars already have begun — an unusually early start to what’s shaping up as a record-setting barrage.

The amount of political advertising in the U.S. seemed intense back in 2012 when President Obama and Mitt Romney each broke the $1-billion mark.

Four years later, total advertising by all candidates topped $2.6 billion, according to figures compiled by AdImpact, the leading firm that tracks ad spending. (Spending figures cover the total for an election cycle, which covers the election year and the preceding year.)

Those figures now seem quaintly small. In the 2018 cycle, a non-presidential election, advertising hit $4 billion. In 2020, spending leaped to $9 billion — more than tripling the 2016 figure, AdImpact reports.


For 2024, AdImpact projects spending to top $10 billion.

Three reasons for huge growth

California once again will lead the way. Even though the state won’t see much spending on the presidential race — it hasn’t been competitive for Republicans in 30 years — AdImpact projects close to $1.2 billion in political ads will beam at the state’s voters.

That spending will be driven by the race for the U.S. Senate seat that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is vacating, a half-dozen highly competitive House seats and the state’s usual profusion of high-dollar ballot initiatives.

California is on track to have more contested House races in 2024 than any other state. Those contests will go a long way toward determining which party holds the House majority. The high stakes combined with the cost of advertising in the state’s major media markets could yield record spending.

Elsewhere in the country, much of the spending will land in the small handful of states that will be battlegrounds in the presidential race.

Seldom have so many spent so much to persuade so few.

The number of voters in the U.S. who truly swing back and forth between parties has shrunk in this age of intense political polarization. Among those who voted in both the 2020 presidential election and last year’s midterms, for example, just 6% crossed from one side to the other, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found in its detailed study of who voted.


The larger target for political campaigns is to motivate people to vote at all — shifts in turnout typically matter more than switches in party. But the pool of voters needing mobilization appears to have shrunk, too, as turnout has hit record levels.

So why has ad spending increased so much?

Three factors account for the growth — the much greater array of platforms on which campaigns can advertise, a huge increase in spending on so-called down-ballot races and the simple fact that campaigns have far more money to spend than ever before.

Not so many years ago, campaign advertising largely meant spots on local television stations. In hotly contested elections, stations could run out of available slots for ads, limiting how much campaigns could effectively spend. Now, however, supply limits have largely disappeared.

Broadcast television will still receive the largest share of the money in 2024, AdImpact projects — about half the total. That comes as other forms of advertising have declined, meaning that for companies that own TV stations in hotly contested markets like Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix, politics will once again be very important.

Advertising on Spanish-language television also likely will grow — AdImpact projects a 9% increase — largely because of highly contested races in states with large Latino populations, including Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

Cable TV is projected to get the second-largest amount, $1.9 billion, but is receiving a declining share of the total. Digital ads on platforms like Facebook and Google are also projected to be relatively stagnant, although at more than $1 billion.


The big growth has come in what the advertising business calls “connected TV” — ads delivered through a streaming service to smart TVs or connected devices like a Fire stick or Roku. AdImpact projects campaigns to spend $1.3 billion on CTV advertising in the current campaign cycle.

Connected TV allows all advertisers — political campaigns included — to know much more about who is watching than they do with broadcast television. Much as with digital ads, they can aim messages at specific demographic groups, emphasizing issues they believe will motivate a particular voter.

Campaigns use CTV for “precise targeting based on geography, demographics, viewer interests and behaviors,” said John Link, AdImpact’s vice president for data, while broadcast remains the preferred tool for “maximized reach” — hitting the biggest possible audience with a broad message.

Maximum reach is what President Biden‘s campaign has been looking for with their ads, which have been on the air in key swing states for weeks.

The spending comes much earlier than previous presidential campaigns. That reflects Democratic uneasiness with Biden’s weakness in polls, but also their confidence that they’ll have ample money to keep spending throughout the campaign year.

The ads from Biden’s campaign and its allied super-PAC, Future Forward USA Action, have focused heavily on touting his record on the economy — an effort to turn around voters’ current dim view. The effort has included ads during NFL games, a costly approach, but one that can reach a large audience of voters who aren’t currently paying much attention to politics.


Unless you live in one of a handful of highly competitive swing states, however, you may not see many of those spots.

Biden and his allies have focused on seven states: Arizona and Nevada in the west, Georgia and North Carolina in the southeast and Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the northern industrial belt. Those seven are expected to account for a lion’s share of presidential advertising from both sides as the campaign proceeds.

The concentration of presidential ads in a few states doesn’t mean, however, that TV viewers elsewhere are home free. While the presidential race gets the most attention, the biggest growth in campaign advertising has come on so-called down-ballot races — contests below the level of president, House, Senate and governor.

AdImpact expects campaigns to spend $3.3 billion on down-ballot contests this time around — exceeding the $2.7 billion projected for the presidential contest.

Some of that comes from ballot initiatives, as California-style big-dollar campaigns have spread to other states.

Ohio, for example, has already seen more than $30 million spent on abortion-related ballot measures in 2023, with more to come this fall.


State legislative contests have also seen explosive growth in spending as those races have increasingly been taken over by national issues. In 2022, 12 states exceeded $10 million spent on advertising for legislative elections, AdImpact reports.

Voters, of course, dislike political ads. Ask people what they hate about politics, and it won’t take long to hear about “special-interest money” paying for partisan attacks on TV.

Ironically, however, it’s voters, themselves, who have helped make the expansion of the campaign air wars possible. From 2006 to 2020, the number of small donors to campaigns rocketed from roughly 50,000 to nearly 12 million, according to work done by the National Bureau of Economic Research. That’s not the only reason campaigns have more money — large-dollar contributions have increased, too — but small donors play a big role.

In this as in other aspects of politics, the old comic strip line applies: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Final days of the Legislature’s session

Lawmakers in Sacramento were wrapping up their annual session this week. Here’s a full review of the most important bills of the year. And here are the top stories from the last days of the session:

California lawmakers send Gov. Newsom child sex trafficking bill that divided Democrats


The California Legislature approved legislation Wednesday to increase penalties for child sex traffickers, a seemingly simple bill that turned into one of the most divisive issues this year in the state Capitol. Senate Bill 14 would classify sex trafficking of minors as a “serious” felony under California’s penal code, which triggers the state’s “three strikes” law that allows prosecutors to pursue life sentences in some cases, Hannah Wiley reported.

California lawmakers pass measure to combat child sexual abuse material on social media

California lawmakers on Wednesday passed a bill aimed at combating child sexual abuse material on social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok, Queenie Wong reported. The legislation, Assembly Bill 1394, would hold social media companies liable for failing to remove the content, which includes child pornography and other obscene material depicting children. “The goal of the bill is to end the practice of social media being a superhighway for child sexual abuse materials,” Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who authored the legislation, said in an interview.

California moves one step closer to five paid sick days, with unions banking on COVID lessons

California employers will be required to provide workers with five days of paid sick leave under legislation passed by the state Legislature on Wednesday, up from the current three-day requirement. While similar attempts to expand paid sick leave have stalled in the past, politically powerful unions are banking on workplace lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to be enough to get Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the bill this time around, Mackenzie Mays reported.

Bill to restrict solitary confinement in California stalls out in Sacramento

In a blow to criminal justice reform advocates and a win for corrections officials, California lawmakers delayed legislation on Wednesday to restrict the use of solitary confinement in prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, to buy time to negotiate with Newsom over safety concerns. Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) agreed to hold Assembly Bill 280 in the final days of this year’s legislative session amid opposition from sheriffs and prison officials and skepticism from Newsom, Wiley reported.

California lawmakers want to protect actors from being replaced by artificial intelligence


As Hollywood actors and writers continue to strike for better pay and benefits, California lawmakers are hoping to protect workers from being replaced by their digital clones. On Wednesday, Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San José) introduced a bill that would give actors and artists a way to nullify provisions in vague contracts that allow studios and other companies to use artificial intelligence to digitally clone their voices, faces and bodies, Wong reported.

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The latest from the states

Column: How labor and a wily senator turned Nevada blue — and redrew the nation’s presidential map

Harry Reid had a hard life that took him from poverty in the Nevada desert to the height of power on Capitol Hill. Along the way, he could reliably count on one thing: tough election fights. He lost one U.S. Senate contest by 624 votes. He won another by less than .01%. “I should have lost that race,” Reid told Jon Ralston, author of an upcoming biography, after being reelected to the Senate in 1998 by just 401 votes. He vowed never to let that happen again. And so Reid, cunning and ruthless in equal measure, leveraged his enormous clout and fundraising muscle to turn Nevada’s creaky state party into a campaign juggernaut, Mark Barabak writes in the latest story in his series about Democratic success in the West.

The latest from court

Hunter Biden sues former Trump aide over release of laptop materials online

Hunter Biden sued a former Trump administration aide in California federal court Wednesday, alleging that he published emails, images, videos and recordings belonging to Biden online. The 13-page suit accuses Garrett Ziegler, his company and 10 unnamed defendants of improperly “accessing, tampering with, manipulating, altering, copying and damaging computer data that they do not own” in violation of the state’s computer fraud laws, Sarah Wire reported.

The latest from Washington

Republicans move to block Biden from forcing migrant families to remain in Texas

Republican lawmakers have vowed to stop the Biden administration from forcing some migrant families to remain in Texas while awaiting their initial asylum screenings, Hamed Aleaziz reported. The Times reported last week that the administration was considering the “remain in Texas” idea, which would involve tracking migrants’ locations using GPS monitoring devices such as ankle monitors. Immigrant advocates criticized the plan, calling it punitive and misguided. Republican leaders, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have said they would attempt to block the policy should it be instituted.

The latest from California

Time to panic? The home insurance market in California collapsing because of climate change


As another legislative session draws to a close in Sacramento, the problem lawmakers failed to fix is one of the most urgent facing Californians: the slow-moving collapse of the property insurance market as costs from climate disasters mount. This year, multiple companies, including the state’s largest home insurer, State Farm, have announced they are no longer taking on new residential and commercial properties, citing wildfire risk. In fact, seven of the 12 insurance groups operating in California — together, responsible for about 85% of the market — have pulled back, Anita Chabria and Erika Smith write.

Alex Villanueva says he’ll challenge Janice Hahn in county supervisor race

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who lost his bid for reelection in November after a single term marked by scandal and controversy, said Wednesday he plans to challenge county Supervisor Janice Hahn in the March 2024 primary. During an hourlong news conference, the former sheriff gave a preview of his pitch to voters: That crime is out of control — and that the Board of Supervisors is responsible, Rebecca Ellis and Jaclyn Cosgrove reported.

The L.A. City Council is looking to expand. Getting there could take nine years

For much of the past year, Los Angeles political leaders have been laying the groundwork for a potentially seismic change in city government: increasing the size of the City Council for the first time in a century. Some, including council President Paul Krekorian, have begun arguing in favor of expanding the council to 23 members, up from 15. Others, such as Councilmember Nithya Raman, are looking at whether to more than double the council’s size, swelling its ranks to 31 members. Yet even if voters sign off on the final plan for adding more politicians — a proposal expected on next year’s city ballot — they could end up waiting nearly a decade for that change to go into effect, David Zahniser reported.

Column: Don’t listen to the chatter about Newsom running for president


Most of us have learned not to swallow everything a politician says. They play too many word games. Republicans and Democrats alike. That’s especially true with politicians who duck and slide when asked whether they aspire to higher office. They try to leave the option open so they’ll be “mentioned” — without making themselves targets. That said, it’s past time for us — especially in the news media — to accept what Newsom says about his presidential aspiration. Stop fantasizing about a potential Newsom race for the White House, George Skelton writes in his column.

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