Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, despite his bogus claims to the contrary. But he beat Joe Biden in one regard: bang for the buck.
Biden outraised and outspent Trump by more than $400 million, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. But Trump’s money went further, on a dollar-per-vote basis. There’s no prize for running the most efficient campaign, but a look at spending per vote provides insight into what worked for each campaign and what didn’t.
The Trump side spent about $809 million, with Trump winning about 72.2 million votes. That’s about $11.20 per vote, or $3.65 less than Biden. Trump is president, of course, able to command free media coverage worth many millions of dollars. So to some extent, Biden needed to raise more money just to be on par with Trump’s media presence.
The national popular vote doesn’t determine the presidential winner, however. Electoral votes do, and that battle came down to a handful of competitive swing states that both candidates focused on relentlessly. There’s no state-by-state breakdown for total campaign spending, but research firm Advertising Analytics tracked media spending for each campaign by state. And here, too, Biden spent considerably more than Trump—spending more on each vote, as well.
In 7 crucial swing states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—Biden outspent Trump on media, $581 million to $339 million. The numbers include all spending on behalf of each candidate on TV, radio and digital advertising, from Sept. 1 through Election Day. Biden won 5 of those states for 71 electoral votes—putting him beyond the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Trump won two of those states, for 44 electoral votes.
On average in those 7 states, Biden spent $28.61 in advertising for each vote he won. Trump spent just $17.41 for each vote. Here’s a breakdown of the cost per vote for each candidate, by state:
Biden’s best performance, by far, was in Georgia, where he spent just $7.29 for each vote he won. Though the vote in Georgia is close enough to force a recount, Biden is on track to win the state and its 16 electoral votes. Georgia is a traditional red state that’s flipping to the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since Bill Clinton won it in 1992. Biden’s relatively low advertising budget in Georgia suggests he may have underestimated his odds there.
Biden’s worst performance was in Florida, where he spent $33.81 on advertising per vote but couldn’t win the state. Biden spent more in Pennsylvania—$39.81 per vote—but he won its 20 electoral votes, so the campaign probably has no regrets.
Trump’s best performance in terms of ad spending per vote is the opposite of Biden’s worst performance. Trump won Florida’s 29 electoral votes while spending $15.88 per vote, less than half what Biden spent. Trump did worst in Arizona, where he spent $25.09 per vote—the most among these seven swing states—but failed to carry the state. Biden spent more in Arizona—$36.39 per vote—and won the state, for a costly but crucial win.
Biden’s fundraising surged in the final weeks of the campaign, while Trump’s flagged, leaving Biden with funds to spend in long-shot states such as Iowa, Texas and Ohio. Trump had to cancel some swing state ads to counter Biden’s onslaught in must-win red states. That shows up most in Trump’s ad spending in Michigan, which totaled just $25 million, compared with $85 million for Biden. Trump spent just $9.45 per vote in Michigan, while Biden spent $30.46. Biden won the vote in Michigan by about 2.7 percentage points—his biggest margin among the five swing-state wins—so that must have been money well spent.
Money doesn’t always buy victory in presidential elections. Trump won in 2016 even though his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, raised and spent more. But every candidate would rather have more money than less, to plaster the airwaves with messages to voters until the last ballot drops. Last-minute ads don’t typically change voters’ minds. But they can persuade people on the fence about voting to show up, and boost turnout. That ended up being crucial this year, with both candidates nabbing more votes for their side than in 2016. In that regard, every dollar of spending was worth it.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.