Everyone who avidly follows politics has his or her own list of the true “swing states” in this presidential election. The lists that really matter, however, are the ones kept by top strategists for the Obama and Romney campaigns, and the ones kept by the one large Democratic and five Republican-oriented super PACs and by other major presidential advertisers this year. Figures compiled by Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group show that, beginning on April 10—the day Rick Santorum dropped his presidential bid, effectively making Mitt Romney the Republican nominee—and through May 29, there have been 63,793 television spots run in 57 out of the nation’s 210 media markets.
CMAG figures look at all broadcast and cable, national, and local television ads in each of those 210 media markets. They are analyzed by CMAG’s staff and divided by the number of Electoral College votes that each state has. Nevada ranked first with $677,332 per Electoral College vote. Iowa came in second with $496,088, and Ohio was third with $467,068. In fourth place was Virginia with $331,680, followed by Colorado with $313,653. New Hampshire came in sixth with $283,342, and North Carolina came in seventh with $237,329. In eighth and ninth places, respectively, were Pennsylvania at $204,670 and Florida at $101,107. These data potentially call into question the Romney campaign’s seriousness about contesting Pennsylvania and about how long Democrats plan to compete for Florida.
According to Wilner, $8,407,220 was the total aired from April 10 to May 29 in Ohio alone—tops on the national list in total general-election television spending so far. Virginia was in second place with $4,311,840; Pennsylvania came in third with $4,093,400; and Nevada fell into fourth place with $4,063,990. Ranking fifth, sixth, and seventh were North Carolina with $3,559,940; Iowa with $2,976,530 (including spending in neighboring Omaha); and Florida with $2,932,110. Colorado came next with $2,822,880, followed by New Hampshire with $1,133,370.
Conspicuous in its absence on the list is Wisconsin. As with so much of life, all is not always as it seems. Neither side spent any money in the Badger State, expected by many observers to be a swing state. The truth is, both sides’ presidential strategists wanted to stay off the air until after Tuesday’s recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. In a couple of weeks, we will be able to see where Wisconsin falls on the priority list. CMAG chief Ken Goldstein points out that between the presidential primary, the recall election, a contested GOP Senate primary contest, and reasonably competitive Senate and presidential races in the state, Wisconsin television viewers will be enduring more political ads than any state in history.
Nationally, with all of this money being spent on general-election television, even before the last primaries have been officially conducted, total presidential spending is likely to easily blow past $2 billion. It’s little wonder, then, that Kantar’s CMAG has carved out a vital niche in the process. CMAG tells highly interested and deeply invested parties who is spending what, how much they are spending, and where they are spending it.
But CMAG provides this information with the “secret sauce” added. It tells clients the tone and content of the ads and when a campaign is changing its message and shifting its resources on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. It’s not hard to imagine how this info is used: Knowing that the opposition or competing interest group has shifted its advertising focus or has changed the tone and content of an ad can lead to the other side making a countermove. Thus the data turn these campaigns into fast-moving chess games based almost on real-time updates of the ad mix.
As soon as the November election is over, CMAG’s Goldstein and Wilner expect a deluge of advertising in the Washington, D.C., market as well as in others. Interest groups will battle to get messages across in anticipation of the lame-duck session of Congress. The number of different organizations expected to go on the air trying to protect various provisions and program funding may make the health care reform fight look like small potatoes by comparison. For broadcasters and certain publications, we’ll just call that the dessert after the Thanksgiving dinner.
This article appears in the June 5, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.