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Steven Shepard

What an unprecedented Biden ad blitz says about his reelection fight

The ads are striking for both their timing and their content, of trying to boost Joe Biden’s image. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
UPDATED: 09 SEP 2023 09:01 AM EST

The cavalry is arriving extraordinarily early for President Joe Biden.

With poll after brutal poll showing the president in danger of losing a likely rematch with former President Donald Trump, his campaign is getting an unusual boost from a super PAC spending millions of dollars to resuscitate public opinion of him in major battlegrounds.

The ads are striking for both their timing and their content.

The election is still 423 days away, and Biden and an affiliate of his chief super PAC are already running TV ads in nearly every major battleground state — far earlier than normal for a presidential election. And instead of going on the attack, as super PACs usually do, the ads are trying to boost Biden’s image.

Future Forward USA Action, an arm of the top super PAC backing Biden’s reelection bid, is spending more than $12 million on an ad campaign that began Friday in the biggest markets of six major battleground states. That puts the outside group and the campaign — which is a month into its own sustained ad campaign — on the air earlier than Trump and his allies began advertising in earnest for the 2020 election, for example.

Future Forward USA Action's aren’t going after Trump, the odds-on favorite to be the Republican standard bearer. The spots, which are cosponsored by the group Climate Power, are instead boosting Biden, whose average approval rating is only 42 percent, according to RealClearPolitics, lagging slightly behind Trump (who lost reelection) and Obama (who won) at this stage of their presidencies. They particularly seek to shore up Biden in perhaps his greatest area of vulnerability: voters’ negative views of the state of the economy. Biden’s average approval rating on the economy is 38 percent, about 4 points lower than his overall approval rating.

That's a pretty new approach for the super PAC era, in which these outside groups typically serve as attack dogs running negative ads. Priorities USA Action’s 2012 ads painting GOP nominee Mitt Romney as out of touch with everyday Americans helped then-President Barack Obama hold onto blue-collar swing states like Iowa and Ohio that have since abandoned the Democratic Party.

It’s no secret why Biden and his allies are hitting the airwaves so early with these messages. But the ads also reveal a lot more about how Democrats see the state of the race, the president’s weaknesses, and the most important voters to target in 2024.

Here are five things to know about the early Biden ad blitz:

The pro-Biden ads are an unprecedented early investment

The Future Forward USA Action ads are costing the group $12.3 million between this week and Nov. 12, according to AdImpact, a company that tracks political advertising. No recent reelection bid comes close.

In the previous election, the top super PAC supporting Trump, America First Action, or any of its arms didn’t place its first ads until April 2020. And those spots, as is typical for super PACs, went negative on Biden, who by then had all but locked up the Democratic nomination.

Priorities USA Action spent small sums to hit Romney in 2011 — a few hundred thousand dollars — but didn’t launch its first significant ad buy until February 2012, by which point Romney had emerged as the most likely Republican to win the primary.

That doesn’t mean ads in the year before the election are unheard of. Trump’s campaign aired about $6 million in TV ads in 2019, mostly beginning in October.

Biden’s campaign has been quietly spending about $1 million a week for the past month or so on its own ads, bringing its total spending for the year to just over $5 million already when combined with coordinated ads with the Democratic National Committee. Biden’s ad bookings currently run through Sept. 18.

The ad targets show how Biden world defines the swing-state universe

The election is still more than a year away, but the early ad bookings provide clues to Democrats’ perceived path to victory.

Both Biden and Future Forward are spending in six states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All six were 2020 battlegrounds Biden won by close margins ranging from 0.2 percentage points in Georgia to 2.8 points in Michigan.

Biden’s campaign is also advertising in North Carolina, which voted for Trump by 1.3 points in 2020. Thanks to its growing population, North Carolina now has more electoral votes (16) than Michigan (15) for the first time since Reconstruction and now has the same weight as Georgia.

The two general-election campaigns will likely dip their toes into other places, but those seven states represent the 2024 battlefield on which both parties will do the vast majority of their fighting.

The only state decided in 2020 by 5 points or fewer that’s missing from the ad buys is Florida — which went for Trump by 3.4 percentage points and is perceived by both parties as continuing to drift toward the GOP — though Biden’s campaign did briefly run ads there earlier this year.

The ads focus on Biden’s biggest liability: The economy

The most-aired of the two new Future Forward USA Action ads that debuted Friday is a spot highlighting Biden’s economic record. “Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS Act are keeping jobs in America and bringing jobs back to America,” says a man wearing an IBEW T-shirt and IDed on screen as “James C.”

But Biden and his allies have a long way to go to convince voters his policies have made the economy better, despite some positive jobs and gross domestic product data recently. According to a new CNN/SSRS poll this week, a majority of Americans, 58 percent, think Biden’s policies have worsened economic conditions in the country, up from 50 percent when CNN asked the question last October.

Only about a quarter of respondents, 24 percent, said Biden’s policies had improved the economy, while another 18 percent said they’ve had no impact.

Voters in nearly every presidential election say the economy is the most important issue to their vote. Even in 2020, as the nation grappled with the coronavirus pandemic and a widespread reckoning on race, more voters told exit pollsters the economy (35 percent) was their top issue than racial inequality (20 percent) and Covid (17 percent).

That’s poised to continue in 2024. A Wall Street Journal poll out this week showed general economic issues (24 percent) ranked first on voters’ most-important issues list, more than immigration (11 percent), abortion (8 percent) and inflation (6 percent).

The ads frame clean energy as inflation-busting

The other ad highlights Biden’s spearheading of “a major ramp-up in clean-energy production,” featuring the president signing the Inflation Reduction Act into law.

“We know the oil companies rip us off. The utility companies? They rip us off, too,” a female narrator says in the spot, which begins with a familiar image of a gasoline pump display ticking upward.

The video closes with the narrator saying: “With this plan, the president is working to save us money. And we appreciate that.”

The ad is running across battleground states, but AdImpact shows it running most frequently in Nevada and Arizona, which are among the top ten most-expensive states for a gallon of regular gasoline, according to AAA’s tracking of prices nationwide. Through Friday morning, the ad had aired nine times in Phoenix and 11 times in Las Vegas — but only once each in Atlanta and Milwaukee.

The ads come as polls show Biden tied with Trump

Biden’s orbit has been besieged over the past seven days by polling that underscores his historically weak position.

Last Saturday, a Wall Street Journal poll showed the president with a 42 percent approval rating — compared to 57 percent disapproval — and deadlocked with Trump in a hypothetical rematch, 46 percent apiece.

Then, on Thursday, CNN’s poll was even worse for Biden. His approval-vs.-disapproval numbers were 39 percent to 61 percent. Trump was similarly neck-and-neck with Biden, 47 percent to 46 percent — but another Republican, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, actually had a slight lead over the incumbent, 49 percent to 43 percent.

Republicans’ current advantage in the Electoral College means running even with Trump would likely mean defeat for Biden. Recall that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2 points but lost the presidency, while Biden’s 4 point victory in 2020 meant the states that gave Biden an Electoral College majority were still quite close.

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect that Future Forward USA Action is an arm of Future Forward, the top Biden super PAC.

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