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Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters

Self-funded billionaires drive ad spending up 131% over 2016

(MIDDLETOWN, CT) January 29, 2020 – A new analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project shows that over $44 million has been spent on 122,815 broadcast television presidential ads in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucus on Monday, February 3 (Table 1). These totals in Iowa represent an 11 percent increase in presidential ad spending over 2016 (which saw $40 million) and a 65 percent increase in airings (74,483 ads aired at this point in 2016). Tom Steyer’s campaign has spent over $11 million on over 37,000 ads, while Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has spent over $6 million on a third of that total (12,289 airings), and Bernie Sanders’ campaign has spent $5.8 million for 20,272 airings. The campaigns of Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have also spent more than $3 million each on the presidential race in Iowa.

Table 1: Presidential Ad Airings and Spending by Sponsor (Iowa Only)

SponsorAiringsEst. Spending ($)*
Steyer, Tom37,21511,338,6231
Buttigieg, Pete12,2896,605,5612
Sanders, Bernie20,2725,859,6363
Yang, Andrew14,4914,402,7554
Warren, Elizabeth10,8293,511,9225
Biden, Joe9,1683,066,5146
Klobuchar, Amy4,4691,835,2257
Bennet, Michael1,565843,1858
Gillibrand, Kirsten2,338688,1209
Trump, Donald992481,79510
Delaney, John1,379450,73011
Bullock, Steve809402,47512
Harris, Kamala809389,34513
Bloomberg, Michael737375,46414
Booker, Cory447179,95015
Gabbard, Tulsi562172,67016
Castro, Julian5023,50017
Gravel, Mike57,70018
Unite the Country33183,026,52720
Act Now on Climate756419,20521
United We Win Super PAC266220,23022
National Biodiesel Board4325,77523
Club for Growth621,80024
Iowa Total122,81544,348,70727
Numbers include ads aired on broadcast television in Iowa between January 1, 2019, and January 26, 2020.
*The final column can be used to return to the original sorting of the table.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

By and large, spending has come from the candidates’ campaign as opposed to outside groups. The heaviest spending group is Unite the Country, a single-candidate super PAC supportive of Joe Biden, which has put $3 million into the race in Iowa. The United We Win super PAC, which supported Cory Booker, spent about $200,000 on ads in the state.

Presidential TV Ad Spending More Than Double 2016 Totals

Of course, Iowa is not the only state being inundated by ad spending. So far, an estimated $367 million has been spent on 513,437 political ads in the presidential race (Table 2), an increase of 131 percent over 2016 spending and 227 percent over 2016 ad volume.

Table 2: Presidential Ad Airings and Spending by Election Cycle

CycleAiringsEst. Spending (Ms)
Numbers include ads aired on national network, national cable and broadcast television
between January 1 of the year prior to the election and January 26 of election year.
*Denotes data from the top 100 media markets only. **Denotes data from the top 75
media markets only. Totals are not adjusted for inflation.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

“Ad spending in this nomination race is crushing records,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, “and the main reason for that is the presence of Bloomberg and Steyer, the two self-funded billionaires.”

By this point in 2016, $159 million had been spent on 156,935 ads in the presidential race, while in 2012, $61 million had been spent on 116,935 presidential ads by January 26. Presidential ad spending as of January 26, 2008 had amounted to $106 million for 151,430 ads.

Table 3 breaks down spending in 2019 and early 2020 by sponsor—both candidates and groups—for those spending more than $100,000. Two candidates top the list: Michael Bloomberg, with an estimated $196 million in ad spending, and Tom Steyer, who has spent $113 million so far. The drop in ad spending after these two billionaires is considerable. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has spent just under $10 million, while Pete Buttigieg has spent about $9 million. Andrew Yang has spent $8 million on ads, followed by Donald Trump with $7 million in ad spending.

Table 3: Presidential Ad Airings and Spending by Sponsor (All Markets)

SponsorAiringsEst. Spending*
Bloomberg, Michael232,196196,776,7461
Steyer, Tom164,460113,735,1142
Sanders, Bernie30,6279,851,3143
Buttigieg, Pete16,2948,933,0184
Yang, Andrew22,7038,082,5335
Trump, Donald4,6656,965,9396
Warren, Elizabeth11,3173,817,4617
Biden, Joe9,2613,239,5428
Klobuchar, Amy5,4832,343,0369
Gillibrand, Kirsten2,7881,099,87010
Bennet, Michael1,635900,22611
Gabbard, Tulsi1,660578,25012
Delaney, John1,439543,23013
Harris, Kamala810402,84514
Bullock, Steve809402,47515
Booker, Cory447179,95016
Shawe , Shirley34117,70017
Unite the Country3,3203,038,52719
Need to Impeach411,555,40020
Judicial Crisis Network401,100,00021
AB PAC6311,034,14022
AB Foundation975790,75023
Act Now on Climate786776,20524
Planned Parenthood Action Fund8253,03025
Reason to Believe PAC110232,14026
United We Win Super PAC266220,23027
Senate Leadership Fund327105,30029
Defend American Democracy10104,50030
Numbers include ads aired on national network, national cable and broadcast television
between January 1, 2019, and January 26, 2020.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

Joe Biden, currently in the lead in many polls, has spent only $3.2 million on ads, but his campaign has been aided by the super PAC Unite the Country, which has spent $3 million in support of his candidacy. By and large, though, group spending in the presidential race has been minimal. Tom Steyer’s Need to Impeach spent about $1.5 million (mostly before he entered the race), and the Judicial Crisis Network, a pro-Trump group, spent around $1 million in the summer of 2019.

Bloomberg, Steyer Take Different Strategies

While Bloomberg and Steyer are both spending enormous amounts of money on political advertising, they are spending that money in different places, as shown in Figure 1. In addition to leading advertising in Iowa by large margins, Steyer is also concentrating his ad buys in early nomination states, notably South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada. Bloomberg, by contrast, is taking a much broader approach. While Steyer’s advertising has appeared in more markets overall (185 of the 210 compared to 138 for Bloomberg), many of these buys were very low in volume.

“Michael Bloomberg seems to be taking pains to avoid advertising in the first four states to cast ballots,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “But by focusing his advertising in the states that vote later, he has the airwaves almost to himself—at least for now. And the volume of airings will have made them hard to miss.”

Figure 1: Bloomberg & Steyer Advertising by Market

Download figure data as a spreadsheet.

Top Presidential Advertisers in Historical Perspective

To help put Bloomberg and Steyer’s advertising into context, the WMP compiled spending on presidential advertising from the 1999-2000 cycle onward as shown in Table 4. Prior to
Bloomberg’s and Steyer’s multi-million-dollar ad buys, the biggest spender in the presidential nomination race (through January 26 of election year) was Right to Rise, the single-candidate super PAC that supported Jeb Bush in 2016. The biggest candidate spender prior to the current election cycle was Mitt Romney in 2008, whose campaign spent $28 million on ads.

“While Bloomberg and Steyer have shattered spending records for television ads in the nomination race, the other 2020 candidates have been quite sparing in their television ad spending,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Bernie Sanders’ $9.9 million in ad spending, for instance, is well below spending by other candidates in 2008 and 2016, including himself four years ago.”

In terms of the number of ad airings, however, Sanders in 2020 ranks behind only Bloomberg, Steyer and Romney in 2008.

Table 4: Top Presidential Sponsors (Through Jan 26) From Past Six Cycles

SponsorAiringsEst. Spending (Ms)Cycle
Bloomberg, Michael232,196196.82020
Steyer, Tom164,460113.72020
Right to Rise USA26,87550.42016
Romney, Mitt34,22928.12008
Obama, Barack28,86121.82008
Clinton, Hillary25,29118.32008
Clinton, Hillary29,85017.52016
Sanders, Bernie26,80014.12016
America Leads4,07810.82016
Conservative Solutions PAC6,22410.82016
Dean, Howard18,31610.62004*
Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies14,43310.52012
Sanders, Bernie30,6279.92020
Bush, George11,7379.02000**
Restore Our Future, Inc.14,6059.02012
Buttigieg, Pete16,2948.92020
Rubio, Marco11,5338.62016
Romney, Mitt15,9988.42012
Edwards, John14,7328.32008
New Day For America2,5808.32016
Yang, Andrew22,7038.12020
Conservative Solutions Project4,8827.52016
Clark, Wesley10,5017.52004*
McCain, John10,4617.42008
Trump, Donald4,6657.02020
Numbers include ads aired on national network, national cable and broadcast television between January 1 of the off-year and January 26 of the election year.
*Denotes data from the top 100 media markets only. **Denotes data from the top 75 media markets only. Totals are not adjusted for inflation.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. 2000-2004 data available through the Wisconsin Advertising Project.

About This Report

The Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) provides real-time tracking and analysis of political advertising in an effort to increase transparency in elections. Housed in Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) – part of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life – the Wesleyan Media Project is the successor to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which disbanded in 2009. It is directed by Erika Franklin Fowler, associate professor of government at Wesleyan University, Michael M. Franz, professor of government at Bowdoin College and Travis N. Ridout, professor of political science at Washington State University. WMP personnel include Laura Baum (Project Manager), Colleen Bogucki (Project Coordinator), Pavel Oleinikov (Associate Director, QAC), and Courtney Page-Tan (Post-Doctoral Fellow).

The Wesleyan Media Project is supported by Wesleyan University,
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Democracy Fund. WMP is partnering again this year with the Center for Responsive Politics, to provide added information on outside group disclosure.

Periodic releases of data will be posted on the project’s website and dispersed via Twitter @wesmediaproject. To be added to our email update list, click here.

For more information contact:
Lauren Rubenstein,,
(860) 685-3813 or (203) 644-7144

About Wesleyan University
Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., is known for the excellence of its academic and co-curricular programs. With more than 2,900 undergraduates and 200 graduate students, Wesleyan is dedicated to providing a liberal arts education characterized by boldness, rigor and practical idealism. For more, visit

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

About Democracy Fund
Created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, Democracy Fund is a foundation helping to ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Democracy Fund has invested more than $125 million in support of a healthy, resilient, and diverse democracy with a particular focus on modern elections, effective governance, and a vibrant public square.