2012 ad blitz: big money, smaller audience
WASHINGTON (AP) — One million ads. More than $1 billion. Ten battleground states.
Those eye-popping figures tell the story of the 2012 presidential campaign TV ad blitz — never before has so much money been spent on so many commercials aimed at so few voters.
Television ads were the primary communications tool for the campaigns of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, despite the gradual but persistent shift of viewers from television to the Internet.
While both teams maintained a robust social media presence and used online ads for micro-targeting voters based on their reading and shopping habits, nothing came close to the campaigns' investment in the kind of 30- and 60-second TV spots that have defined presidential campaigns for nearly half a century.
"The decline of television advertising hasn't happened, and it's not going away anytime soon," said Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan University Media Project which tracks campaign advertising. "TV is where you look for the persuadable voter, and the Internet is what you use to mobilize your base."
The two presidential campaigns, the political parties and their allied independent groups aired 1,015,615 ads between June 1 and Oct. 29, the Wesleyan project found — almost 40 percent more than the number of ads that ran in the same period in 2008, when Obama defeated Republican John McCain for the presidency.
The proliferation of campaign commercials was fueled by an unprecedented level of spending. The candidates, parties and groups spent more than $1.08 billion total on commercials since April according to data compiled by media trackers and provided to The Associated Press.
But the ads were directed at an ever-shrinking universe of voters.
Nine states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — saw the vast majority of the campaign spots, with a 10th state, Pennsylvania, emerging late in the campaign as an advertising battleground as well.
Both sides also made smaller buys in Democratic-leaning Michigan and Minnesota, but did little else to suggest either state was seriously in play.
It's a sharp drop from 2008, when those states along with New Mexico, Missouri, Indiana, Montana, Georgia and North Dakota were considered battlegrounds and saw a heavy round of campaign commercials from the candidates and independent groups alike. This year, almost no one outside of the 10 major swing states has seen a presidential campaign ad except for a few national cable and broadcast buys.
"Fewer people are witnessing the onslaught than ever before. The ones that are are getting carpet bombed," Fowler said.
A newly empowered spate of independent groups helped contribute to the glut, investing millions in their own TV advertising to influence the 2012 contest.
A series of federal court rulings, including the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, significantly eased campaign finance regulations, freeing corporations and wealthy individuals to spend money to influence politics.
Pro-Romney groups American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity and pro-Obama groups led by Priorities USA Action eagerly took advantage of the new rules. Collectively, Republican outside groups vastly outnumbered — and outspent — their Democratic counterparts.
But it's not at all clear whether TV ad spending by super PACs and other outside groups was a smart use of their cash.
Television stations, by law, must grant presidential candidates lower ad rates than regular commercial advertisers receive. That discount is not available to the political parties nor the outside groups, forcing them to pay much higher rates in battleground states where ad space is at a premium.
That's in part why Obama aired more spots than did Romney and his super PAC allies. Obama and Democratic-leaning groups spent approximately $460 million on the airwaves, the vast majority coming from the president's campaign. Romney and the Republican groups spent $624 million, more than half of which came from outside groups.
The president's campaign aired about 503,000 ads since June 1, the Wesleyan study found, compared to about 191,000 for Romney. The Republican hopeful was aided by some 270,000 ads from outside groups supporting his candidacy. While there is no question the outside groups helped bring Romney to parity with Obama on the airwaves, the president's campaign, by taking advantage of the lower ad rate, spent less money to air more ads.
The Obama campaign also gambled that it was better to buy ads early in the contest rather than wait until after the conventions — the more traditional route which Romney followed. The president's campaign dominated the airwaves from April through mid-July, when Romney and Republican groups matched and started to exceed the Democratic side.