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Central Pa. organizers say $1.9M in campaign ads are setting the tone for 2024

  • By Jaxon White and Nathan Willison/LNP | LancasterOnline
This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.

 AP Photo

This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.

Maybe it was President Joe Biden’s campaign ad courting Republican voters who chose Nikki Haley over former President Donald Trump in the April primary.

Or maybe it was the Trump campaign’s ad blaming Biden’s immigration policies for a surge of undocumented migrants crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.

No matter which campaign or political action committee was paying to air an ad, most residents of Lancaster County have almost certainly watched at least one presidential campaign ad this year.

That’s because the two leading candidates and their allied groups spent more than $1.9 million to air over 5,300 campaign ads across five of south-central Pennsylvania’s TV stations between Jan. 1 and May 31 this year, according to public filings submitted by broadcasters to the Federal Communications Commission.

Multiple Democrats involved in party committees across south central Pennsylvania told LNP | LancasterOnline that political advertising, especially negative ads targeting Trump, resonates with their voters.

“The advertising is helpful as it frames the issues for people,” said Stella Sexton, vice-chair of the Lancaster County Democrats. “People have busy lives and a lot of them are just not tuning into the election.”


She said voters often tell her Trump’s recent criminal conviction on 34 felony charges will motivate them to vote this November. Any advertising by the Biden campaign about those convictions, she said, is “certainly fair game.”

Republican committee organizers from Lancaster, York, Chester and Lebanon counties did not respond to requests for comment.

Several PACs have already pledged millions in Pennsylvania ad buys for the remaining months of the campaign.

Widener University political science professor J. Wesley Leckrone said TV ads are likely aimed at getting older voters — who are more likely to vote in every election and are largely consumers of linear TV programming — to the polls. But he said measuring how effectively ads affect voters’ decisions is difficult.

“All the years that we’ve studied campaigns, you think we’d have a better way to measure it,” Leckrone said. “But we don’t.”

The content of advertisements can vary drastically by campaign and time of year, Leckrone said. “You just keep throwing things at the wall to see what works.”

Leckrone said that advertisements aimed at younger voters — which polling shows both candidates are struggling to win over — are likely better placed on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, maintains a web library of digital ads purchased on its platforms showing the candidates have spent between $1.6 million and $2 million on ads in Pennsylvania through May 31..

While TikTok’s guidelines prohibit political advertising, Biden’s and Trump’s campaigns operate active accounts on the platform.

‘It’s an arms race’

Biden’s campaign spent more than $536,000 on 3,100 TV advertisements in south-central Pennsylvania as of the end of May. The Democratic-aligned AB PAC, or American Bridge 21st Century, has also spent about $578,000 on 300 advertisements supporting Biden or attacking Trump.

Meanwhile, MAGA Inc., Trump’s super PAC, bought more than 1,900 TV ads, costing about $822,000, in the same time frame.

Stephen Medvic, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said enough voters know the presidential candidates that their commercials don’t need to promote their policy positions.

Instead, their ads often focus on attacking their opponent. “We remember negative information more than we remember positive information,” he said.

Medvic said candidates often try to keep pace with one another in the amount of advertising they do, which ends up negating the impact the ads have on voters’ decisions. “It’s an arms race.”

Asked for comment, Biden’s statewide campaign manager Nikki Lu said the campaign is looking to distinguish the two candidates’ plans for office, pointing to Trump saying he’ll act as a dictator on his first day in office, his planned tax cut that she said would benefit the country’s wealthiest citizens, and his push to restrict abortion access nationwide.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Rachel Lee pointed to a recent Emerson College poll that shows Trump is leading Biden in Pennsylvania to argue their message is sticking with voters.

“The Biden camp can light money on fire in Pennsylvania, but voters will not be distracted from the kitchen table issues – like soaring prices, a wide-open border, and rampant crime – that will drive them to the polls in support of President Trump this November,” Lee said.

Leckrone said the sheer volume of spending this early in the race indicates one thing: “This is a winnable race for both sides.”

It’s unclear what long-term impact Trump’s guilty verdict could have on the race. Trump’s campaign saw a spike in donations from his supporters after the conviction.

Likewise, it’s an open question if Biden’s spending on attack ads can overcome his poor showing in the June 27 CNN debate.

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Capitalizing on the conviction, Biden recently launched a new “Character Matters” ad criticizing Trump for the verdict and highlighting Biden’s work in the White House. “In the courtroom, we see Donald Trump for who he is,” the ad said.

Margins will matter this year, Leckrone said. Both sides are looking to get their base of supporters to the polls and swing independent voters to their sides. Four years ago Biden beat former President Donald Trump by just 82,000 votes. In 2016, Trump won the state by 44,000 votes, beating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Pennsylvania is widely considered one of the key battleground states in the 2024 election, with 19 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.

“You want voters to go to the polls thinking about your issues,” Medvic said. “All advertising is short. It’s 30 seconds or a minute. It can’t be that detailed. It’s just trying to make a connection.”

Setting the agenda

The flood of presidential campaign ads often “crowd out” messages that are important to candidates running in lower ballot races, Medvic said.

Chad Baker, chair of the York County Democrats, said TV ads often serve as “conversation starters.”

“For voters who are on the fence, these ads do have some persuasive effects and we do hear from folks that they have seen ads, especially if they are attack ads,” Baker said.

Matt Duvall, chair of the Lebanon County Democratic Committee, shared a similar sentiment. He said the ads “remind people of President Biden’s accomplishments” surrounding the county’s low unemployment rates and state of the economy while drawing a contrast between the two candidates’ characters.

“So, these ads do serve to help people formulate questions to ask and answers to those questions,” Duvall said.

Reporter Nate Willison, who writes about campaign finance for LNP | LancasterOnline, contributed to this report. His work is funded by the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund. For more information, or to make a contribution, please visit

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