If a presidential contest was decided entirely by virtue of the amount of money either side spends on campaign commercials, Mitt Romney should start measuring the drapes in the Oval Office today. But if the race will come down to which candidate’s message runs more often, President Obama can snuggle in for another four years.
That's because Romney and his Republican allies are significantly outspending Obama over the last two weeks of the campaign season, flexing the financial muscle provided both by Romney's robust fundraising machine and the outside groups that can collect unlimited cash thanks to several recent court rulings. But Obama has actually run more television advertising, due to federal rules that give candidates an edge over outside groups.
This week alone, Republican groups are combining to spend $59 million across 13 states. Obama and two other Democratic groups are spending a comparatively paltry $36 million across 10 states. Collectively, the Republican side has spent $115 million more than the Democratic side -- $539 million versus $424 million, according to sources watching the advertising market.
Romney and his Republican allies are outspending Obama in every battleground state, the data show. In some states, the disparity is only minor; the GOP is spending just over $600,000 more in New Hampshire than Obama's side. In other states, the Republican advantage runs into the seven figures -- Republicans are outspending Democrats by more than $5 million in Florida, $4 million in Ohio, $3.3 million in Wisconsin, and $2 million each in Iowa and Virginia.
There are 70 media markets that will see advertisements aimed at swaying the presidential vote this year, spread across Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Romney and his Republican allies are outspending Obama and Democrats in 66 of the 70, sometimes by huge multiples.
Republicans are outspending Democrats by a 20-to-one margin ($324,000 to $16,000) in the Ottumwa market in southeast Iowa; by an $844,000 to $175,000 margin in La Crosse, in rural western Wisconsin; and by three-to-one margins in Youngstown, Ohio and Roanoke, Va.
Obama is spending more than the Republicans only in a single major market, Manchester, N.H., and in the tiny Panama City, Fla., Gainesville, Fla., and Burlington, Vt., markets.
And yet Obama is actually airing more advertising, thanks to a combination of Federal Communications Commission rules and early bets on strategy. According to a Wesleyan Media Project study of data compiled by Kantar Media/CMAG, Obama's campaign and his Democratic allies purchased 112,730 individual advertisements between October 1-21, while Republican groups ran a combined 97,407 advertisements.
FCC rules allow candidates to buy advertising space at lower prices than outside groups must pay. Meanwhile, a candidate who buys advertising space earlier, when there is less demand, pays a lower rate than a candidate who buys at the last minute. Many of Obama’s advertising buys were locked in months ago.
Outside groups play a far smaller role on the Democratic side than they do on the GOP side. The Wesleyan study showed that 86 percent of the advertising run on Obama's behalf has been paid for by the campaign, while just 44 percent of Romney's advertising has come from his campaign, with another 44 percent coming from outside groups.
The disparity is starting to show. Over the first three weeks of the month, Obama has paid an average of about $672 per television spot. Romney, who had to buy advertising later, when most of the prime advertising real estate had been snapped up, paid an average of $706. But even Romney is getting a deal compared with outside Republican groups, which are paying an average of $1,103 per advertisement, according to Wesleyan's data.
In search of a plausible path to the 270 electoral votes Romney needs to win the White House, Republicans have sought to expand the battleground map beyond the eight states both sides were fighting for a few weeks ago. Republicans are now advertising heavily in Wisconsin, a state that hasn't gone red since George H.W. Bush won it in 1988; this week, Romney's campaign is spending $1.2 million in the Badger State. The Romney-friendly Restore Our Future super PAC will spend more than that by the time the week is over, while Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies is spending almost $2.5 million in the state.
Restore Our Future has also made early forays into Maine, one of just two states that splits its electoral votes up based on results by congressional district. The group is spending $125,000 in the Portland media market, which bleeds over into northern New Hampshire, and another $100,000 in the Bangor and Presque Isle markets, targeting the state's more rural, slightly more conservative 2nd Congressional District.
The super PAC, run by three veterans of Romney's 2008 campaign, is also spending $1.7 million in Michigan this week. That brings the group's spending in Michigan to more than $9.5 million during the general election, while other Republican groups have dumped another $5 million into the state. Despite the avalanche of cash, polling still shows Obama leading by a wide margin there.
All told, the two sides have spent almost $200 million on advertising in Ohio and Florida, and another $152 million on the Virginia airwaves. The breakneck pace of spending has only increased -- this week, the two sides are spending a combined $17.8 million in Florida, $15.4 million in Virginia, and an incredible $21 million in Ohio.
Total spending on the general election contest so far has topped $963 million, shattering all records. Outside Republican and Democratic groups have spent more than five times what similar groups spent during the 2008 elections. Obama has spent more on television advertisements this year than he did in 2008, and Romney's total television spending eclipsed that of Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign about two weeks ago.