In Depth

Ad Spending Surges as Campaign Enters Final Days

A historic presidential campaign is ending with a blitz of negative ads and a surge in spending by the presidential candidates, but a surprise shortfall in spending by independent groups.

It’s also ending with the unexpected emergence of Georgia, North Dakota and Arizona as battleground states and intense advertising battles between the Obama and McCain campaigns playing out in a number of red states, with especially high levels of spending in the Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., markets.

Indications are that this year’s campaign will rewrite the rules for future campaigns and perhaps foster increased ad spending on public policy and state races as soon as next year. But total political ad spending this cycle could fall short of optimistic projections, even as advertising in the presidential campaign sets records.

Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, estimates that total spending for political campaigns this cycle will top $2.5 billion, with the presidential campaign topping $750 million. Two years ago about $2.5 billion was spent on political advertising, with races for senator and governor in expensive media markets fueling the spending. This year most of the biggest races for senator and governor have been in smaller states.

Total spending could yet go higher. A lot of last-minute spending was taking place, media buyers, station executives and party officials said last week. The Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure unit—which can raise and spend money as long as its message isn’t coordinated with the McCain campaign or the party hierarchy—is spending $25 million in the last two weeks of the campaign, including a last-minute $500,000 buy of Spanish-language TV in Miami.

In addition, the Republican National Committee took out a $5 million loan to fuel advertising to back its Senate and House candidates.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in a news conference Oct. 31 that the McCain campaign, which has generally run far less advertising, is now spending heavily, including “unprecedented” media weights in Tampa.

The Wisconsin Advertising Project reported that from Oct. 21-28, $38 million in ads were run in the presidential race. Stations serving Florida markets led the way with $6 million of the total, followed by Pennsylvania.

The other states with major spending: Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado, Nevada, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire.

During that week in October, the Obama campaign aired spots 978 times in Philadelphia.
The project’s report said 63% of the Obama ads and 79% of the McCain ads were negative. In its previous report, covering ads running from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, the project said 100% of the McCain campaign’s ads and 34% of the Obama campaign’s ads were negative.

The study doesn’t fully capture the dramatic upturn in ad spending as the Republican National Committee increased its buy and the Obama campaign ran its half-hour ad on network TV Wednesday night. The latest buy means that network TV, which hasn’t gotten any political advertising in 12 years, generated nearly $40 million in ads this year from politics.

Independent groups on both sides also either began running ads or stepped up their advertising.
The last-minute spending gave the McCain campaign increased exposure, but whether the additional weight was enough to break through wasn’t clear.

“In some places, McCain, with the independent expenditure, has a pretty equal share of voice, but all this is in an echo chamber of political spots,” said Mr. Tracey. “It’s better than the alternative, but these are tough environments to break through. Everyone up for dog catcher and city councilman is up on TV right now.”

While next year’s ad picture won’t include as much political spending—and campaign money was vital this year in helping stations in battleground states offset ad losses due to the struggling economy—Mr. Tracey had some good news for media companies. He said the change in administrations is likely to fuel public policy advertising spending next year as groups work to sway a new Congress. He also said there could be some special elections as the new administration taps governors, congressmen and senators. Finally, he said, the heavy spending this time could kick off a fierce battle in state races in 2010, with spending beginning next year.