Some former Trump officials said it was a good move to step back in the middle of the summer, when there was still plenty of time to readjust.
“Considering the curveball Covid threw into the political landscape, it’s smart of the campaign to reassess what the most effective messaging is and where and when to place their ad dollars,” said Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary who ran communications for the Republican National Committee in 2016.
But other Republican observers questioned the wisdom of going dark so close to the election.
“It’s too early to determine what impact the cancellation of TV has on the Trump campaign, but any time your opponent is running ads with no retaliation it can have significant impact,” said Sig Rogich, a Republican strategist from Nevada who worked on George H.W. Bush’s campaigns and advised Senator John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid. He recalled a moment in the 1988 presidential race when the Bush team spent an entire week between conventions as the only campaign on air, helping to erase the lead of his opponent, Michael Dukakis.
But that was also before digital advertising became a major arm of a campaign’s messaging strategy, and the Trump campaign is still pouring millions into digital ads each day. It has dozens of active ads on Facebook, serving as both fund-raising ads and caustic attacks against Mr. Biden. Over the past week, the Trump campaign spent nearly $4.8 million on the platform — $575,000 on Wednesday alone, the most recent day for which spending data is available.
Still, over all, the Trump campaign’s hundreds of millions in advertisements have sometimes seemed more of a show of force than a targeted buy. The campaign spent $10 million on two ads during the Super Bowl last year, and over $30 million has gone toward national advertising, a tactic criticized by some operatives as wasteful because it’s paying for time in safe states rather than targeted buys in battlegrounds.
Some observers also said Mr. Trump missed an opportunity to take advantage of his incumbency and negatively define Mr. Biden as he was emerging from the primaries. When former President Barack Obama spent millions on ads attacking Mitt Romney during the summer of 2012, his messaging was disciplined. The Trump campaign has not had a similar focus.
“It’s not just that the Trump campaign is behind, it’s that they’ve blown this historic opportunity to define an opponent, and its extraordinary,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist and former senior adviser for Mr. Romney’s campaign. “They basically had the field to themselves and they still couldn’t score.”