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Millions Spent to Target Elusive Obama-to-Trump Voters in Pennsylvania

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 8/6/2020 Bill Allison and Gregory Korte

(Bloomberg) -- Super PACs are pouring millions of dollars into advertising to target white, rural and working class voters who swung from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016, a bloc that is critical to winning the White House this year.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Pennsylvania, which so-called Obama-Trump voters narrowly turned red in 2016. More than $11.4 million in ads have been booked to run there in August, more than in any other state.

The two biggest spenders this month in the critical battleground, pro-Trump America First Action and AB PAC, which supports Joe Biden, are targeting their messages to that narrow segment of persuadable voters who could again help determine who wins the White House in November.

Biden leads Trump in the Keystone State, 49.4% to 43.4%, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. It’s a state Trump won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016 after Democrats won it for the six straight previous elections.

Spending data from Advertising Analytics shows that campaigns and super PACs have spent four times as much on Pittsburgh this month as Philadelphia, the state’s largest market and a Democratic stronghold. Even markets serving smaller cities like Harrisburg, Wilkes Barre, Johnstown and Erie are seeing more spending than Philadelphia.

That’s a dramatic shift in advertising strategies over the past month as both sides target the small-town and rural voters who largely broke for Trump in 2016. In July, campaigns and super PACs spent more than 27% of their Pennsylvania ad budgets in the Philadelphia market. So far in August, it’s less than 8%.

There are practical reasons for the big spending targeting smaller markets. Ads are cheaper and more effective. Pittsburgh reaches western Pennsylvania with some parts of eastern Ohio, also a swing state, while the Philadelphia market includes large parts of Delaware and New Jersey, neither of which is a competitive state. Advertising there can cost as much as Pennsylvania’s other five markets combined.

The Biden campaign is the only group still running ads in the state’s largest market, with 37% of its Pennsylvania ad budget this month going to Philadelphia. Under federal rules, campaigns can buy ad time for the lowest cost available to a commercial advertiser, while outside groups pay higher market rates.

Under federal law, super PACs, which can accept contributions in unlimited amounts, can’t coordinate their spending activity with candidates.

AB PAC, the super PAC arm of the progressive research organization American Bridge 21st Century, decided to target Obama-Trump voters in 2019 to prevent Trump from picking up support in western and central Pennsylvania a second time.

a group of people sitting in chairs: Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Delivers Remarks In Pennsylvania © Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Delivers Remarks In Pennsylvania

Workers wearing protective masks listen as Biden speaks during at McGregor Industries in Dunmore, Pennsylvania on July 9.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The group is spending $3.4 million in August and running an ad featuring an older woman named Janie from suburban Pittsburgh who said she voted for Trump, but now says, “You learn from your mistakes.”

America First Action, a pro-Trump Super PAC, has responded with a Pennsylvania-specific ad featuring Shawn, a burly union man and lifelong Democrat who voted for Obama twice before pulling the lever for Trump, according to Kelly Sadler, the group’s communications director. “I’m a proud union man. I’m a Democrat, and I do not support Joe Biden,” he says in the ad. America First is spending $3.5 million on ads in Pennsylvania in August.


Campaign spending on television advertising reveals a wealth of information on a candidate’s strength, Electoral College strategy and messaging tactics. Each week, Bloomberg News will take a look at the data about where and how Trump, Biden and key congressional candidates are spending their donors’ money on persuading voters to their side.

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