Like Voters, Most Local Television Stations Were Left Out Of The 2016 Presidential Election

In a campaign where the national popular vote for president matters, campaigns will compete for every vote. People who dislike this idea generally argue that such a system would give candidates a reason to campaign in major metropolitan areas and ignore everyone else. In fact, the opposite is true. Selecting the president by the winner of the most votes nationally would not only include every voter in the process of selecting the president but would also provide a lifeline to local TV.

The current system we use to elect the president increasingly leaves out not just most voters but also most local media. In 2016 presidential election, major cable news networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC collectively brought in nearly $2 billion in advertising revenue. Local broadcasting networks by contrast saw declining political advertising sales. The few local media markets to benefit were in states where the outcome of election was expected to be close. Writes The Conversation, “Both campaigns heavily targeted battleground states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio.” Florida, the closest state in 2012, received the most ads by far in 2016.

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Advertising locally in the most closely contested states prices became prohibitive. Writes the Cook Political Report, “In the presidential race, 2016 was notable for the increase in national network spending on both broadcast and cable TV. Because local ad spending got so expensive in battleground markets, both campaigns apparently calculated that national buys were actually more economical.” Spending on ads that aired nationally was up nearly 20 percent from 2012 levels, but overall “broadcast TV spending fell nearly 20% this cycle compared with 2012.” So while local broadcast media in closely-contested battleground states lost out on some revenue, the candidates forewent purchasing local ads in most states nationwide, which hurt local broadcasting stations that rely on political advertising revenue

This is not good for democracy. More affordable for consumers than cable and pivotal in shaping an understanding of one’s community because of the free news they provide, local broadcast stations rely on advertising revenue to survive. Furthermore, the emphasis on local TV ad spending in the few states that mattered in 2016 demonstrates that local TV still matters in elections, but only in a few states.

What led to this lopsided advertising expenditure? The winner-take-all process by which 48 states allocate their electoral votes encourages presidential candidates to focus their campaign efforts on battleground states. So, how do we fix a system that excludes most Americans from candidates’ campaign efforts and decreases local broadcast TV revenue?

A national popular vote would provide candidates an incentive to advertise in local markets nationwide.

You may be thinking, won’t the national popular vote simply shift the campaign attention from battleground states to the largest metropolitan areas? Such a limiting strategy would be costly for candidates because it is not only expensive to advertise in the largest cities but also would fail to reach citizens outside the biggest metropolitan coverage areas. Fewer than 26 percent of Americans live in the ten most populated metropolitan areas. Voters living outside of them are critical to winning a popular vote. Expect these less populated but also less expensive TV markets across the country to have added importance if every vote counts equally.

Examples actually exist in 2012 for how a campaign spending across America might shift in a national popular vote. Spending levels in that election rose in smaller media markets like Colorado Springs, CO, Dayton, OH, and Cedar Rapids, IA because of the importance of every vote in these swing states. As reported in NPR, in critical states "‘It's not a matter of just winning; it's winning by how much,’ says Rich Beeson, a fifth-generation Coloradan and political director for the Romney campaign.” In a national popular vote, voters in every state would be in play, not just states where the state winner is expected to be close, and one can expect mid-sized and smaller TV media markets nationwide to have added importance, which would give a lift to local networks.

To the benefit of all voters, a national popular vote would cause candidates to seek votes in the states largely ignored under the current winner-take-all system. Candidates would have to consider voters’ interests in all states, not just the battleground states. In contrast to the few ads that ran nationally in 2016 but were actually targeted to voters in battleground states, in a national popular vote presidential campaigns would use local media everywhere to promote messages tailored to the issues impacting different parts of the country.  Making every vote count encourages candidates to engage local media to effectively deliver their messages to voters nationwide.