Ad Nauseam

10 minute read
Michael Crowley

Correction Appended: Sept. 13, 2012

The presidential campaign has created a wonderful problem for television stations in swing states across America. How do they keep local businesses like car dealers and law firms from being shut out of the airwaves by the massive spending of the Obama and Romney campaigns and their super-PAC allies? “It’s been a challenge, because the campaign has been bigger than what we forecast for this year,” says Chuck DeVendra, sales director for WBNS, the CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. “We’ve got to take care of our regular advertisers too. We want them to be successful.” On the upside, the stations are making a killing, charging up to $1,000 per second for a prime-time ad slot. From Cincinnati, Les Vann, vice president and general manager of WKRC, agrees: “If we have an October like I suspect we’re going to have, it will be a record.”

It’s a strange fact of modern politics that, even after revolutions in media and technology, campaigns are still fought out much as they were a generation ago: in thousands of 30-second increments on television. And September is the month when campaign advertising, already running at record-breaking levels, may melt your flat screen. Ad watchers estimate that the Obama and Romney campaigns and their super-PAC supporters have dropped only about half the $1.1 billion they’re projected to spend by Election Day. An NBC News analysis finds that the candidates and their outside groups have spent $575 million in just 12 states. That means the two camps could drop an additional $600 million in the next two months lighting up TV screens with their boasts and body blows. “A deluge is coming,” warns Steven Law, CEO of the Republican super PAC American Crossroads.

The only thing more astounding than all this spending is the uncertainty of campaign pros and political analysts over what difference all the money will make in the end. The hundreds of millions of dollars already spent has produced weeks of a virtual tie, with the only significant movement occurring after the nation focused on the parties’ national conventions: Democrats threw the more energizing celebration, and Barack Obama went home from Charlotte with a small bounce in the polls.

But now the campaigns are like two armies fighting intensely over a few hundred yards of bombed-out terrain. Campaign pros estimate that a tiny 6% of the national electorate remains undecided about whom to vote for, and the raw number in the swing states could be a few million. But while those voters may be persuadable, they could be getting their fill of persuasion as the campaigns drown them in nonstop advertising appeals that threaten to become a constant, grating presence, like a neighbor’s endless home renovation.

But money still matters, and in the campaign’s closing weeks it stands to benefit Mitt Romney the most. Obama has dumped about $200 million on advertising so far, but Romney and the super PACs backing him are cranking up their firepower. “We will be outspent” by Election Day, concedes Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “But our grassroots is how we win.” Romney needs the help. With his opponent riding a small postconvention bounce and Republicans growing restless about their nominee’s lack of progress, pummeling Obama on the airwaves may be Romney’s best shot at victory.

The Battlefield

The U.S. is a big country, but the presidential campaign is playing out across only a small slice of it. This mammoth ad blitz is mainly concentrated in about 15 key media markets in nine swing states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado. That’s an even narrower playing field than in recent years. The campaigns have gone dark in Pennsylvania, long considered up for grabs but now solidly blue. “Both sides clearly agree on the few places to spend,” says Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “It’s much more highly concentrated than in 2008,” when Obama and John McCain mounted advertising campaigns in a half-dozen additional states. Fifty-five percent of the money spent to date has been spent in swing states, according to NBC’s advertising analysis.

The playing field may be smaller, but the spending has come faster and earlier than ever before. A voter in Columbus saw as many political ads in July as she would have in September 2008, says Elizabeth Wilner, who tracks advertising for Campaign Media Analysis Group. The Obama campaign spent the summer blasting away at Romney’s image while he restocked his coffers after an expensive primary fight. Meanwhile, well-funded GOP super PACs responded with assaults on Obama’s management of the economy. “I don’t know that there’s been anything quite like this in the past,” says Law. “There was much more substantial advertising in the late spring and early summer than before.”

So far those two giant money machines have ground to one of the most expensive stalemates in history, although Obama has generally run a nose ahead of Romney in polls. Yet no one dreams of scaling back the spending. “The amazing thing,” says Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 White House campaign, “is that both sides are spending at this furious rate, and nothing’s changed. So the feeling is that we have to keep spending or something will change.”

And Romney has only begun to spend in earnest. A long primary battle depleted his campaign bank account, which Romney spent the spring and summer restocking–mostly with cash that Federal Election Commission regulations prevented him from spending until after his official nomination. “It cost us $135 million to get the nomination. They got it for free,” says Romney media strategist Stuart Stevens. “That’s just how it is.”

Now Romney has launched his counterattack. Even as hungover Democrats flew home from Charlotte, the Romney campaign was launching a major new ad blitz across 10 states. The ads hit Obama on economic issues tailored by state: sputtering housing markets in Florida, rising debt in Iowa, possible defense cuts in Virginia and Colorado, weak manufacturing in Ohio and so on.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, is targeting voters differently. Obama has heavily relied on local cable- and satellite-television buys, allowing them to target demographic niches–the single women who watch OWN, perhaps, or the non-college-educated white men who watch ESPN. And while Democrats are sure to be outspent by Republican super PACs, the GOP’s advantage is blunted by the fact that television stations must offer discounted advertising rates to the party nominees, while outside groups will pay rates that have been bid up to two or three times that price.

But how much is too much? Political professionals suspect all this advertising is overkill–and say privately they are playing a game of diminishing returns, at which millions of dollars are being wasted on deaf ears. “By the time we get into the fall,” says Wilner, “it will be like the ground after a violent rainstorm: How much more water can the ground absorb?” Or as Fowler says, “Once you’ve hit 10,000 ads, 1,000 more isn’t going to do a whole lot if your opponent will simply match them.”

The Homestretch

Romney is already curtailing his time on the trail for long hours of debate prep at his Boston headquarters, where the part of Obama is being played by Ohio Senator (and vice-presidential short lister) Rob Portman. More than 60 million Americans are likely to tune in to the three presidential debates, offering the candidates even more exposure than at their summer party conventions.

The stakes for those debates are rising for Romney, who can hear fellow Republicans impatiently drumming their fingers at his inability to pull ahead of Obama. The Wall Street Journal grouses at Romney’s lack of policy specifics, while others decry a play-it-safe campaign style. Fueling this backseat driving is a nagging sense that a nimbler and more charismatic nominee could be soaring, not slogging, at a time of 8% unemployment.

Be patient, say Romney’s advisers. Stevens expects undecided voters to break decisively against Obama on Election Day. To be sure, that’s not what happened when an incumbent last fought political headwinds: fence sitters roughly split between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. But 2012 could be different, because the undecided bloc is heavily white and male (those voters tend to be pro-Romney) and are more likely than most to see the nation as headed in the wrong direction–a traditionally reliable predictor of anti-incumbent voting. The fact that Obama has barely broken 50% in the polls, even after a winning convention in Charlotte, may suggest he has a ceiling of support that will prevent him from ever opening a decisive lead. “He has just not been acquiring new voters,” Stevens tells TIME.

Obama actually outraised Romney in August, $114 million to $111.6 million. But Romney’s war chest is thought to be much larger, and GOP super PACs like American Crossroads are sitting on many tens of millions more than their underfunded Democratic counterparts. Hoping to narrow that gap, Democrats recently enlisted former White House chief of staff and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to raise money for the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA, which has struggled to raise cash from liberal donors turned off by big money in politics. The idea fizzled almost as quickly as it emerged. Democrats had hoped that Emanuel’s stature (and sheer, profane force of will) might coax cash from reluctant megadonors like George Soros and Oprah Winfrey. But there were questions about the propriety of a big-city mayor’s gathering multimillion-dollar checks on his party’s behalf, and when Chicago’s teachers went on strike, Emanuel shelved his new role–perhaps with some relief–before he’d even assumed it.

One consolation for Democrats is that early money buys more than advertising after the leaves have turned. For one thing, some voters will start to cast their ballots, with millions more to come in the next few weeks. Campaign sources think more than one-third of the electorate will vote early–as much as 36% of voters, compared with 31% in 2008–which is another reason the campaigns are blasting televisions about as hard in September as they will in October. “This is not 1980,” Messina says, referring to Ronald Reagan’s late come-from-behind victory. “By the third debate, a large percentage of people in Colorado and Florida will have voted and even more minds will be made up.”

And some campaign officials say that by mid-October, advertising will grow less important. Inundated voters are likely to be jaded and tired of advertising and hungry for unscripted moments that reveal the true nature of the candidates. “What happens in almost any election is that the performances of the candidates themselves transcends their own advertising,” says Law, citing the debates, campaign appearances and media coverage as focal points for voters as they start “trying to get a feel for the person.” Go figure: after more than a billion dollars of campaign propaganda has flooded through our cable wires, it may be that the decisive factor in November is something money can’t buy.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misquoted Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina

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