Mitt Romney may be beset by controversy and behind in most polls, but he and his armada of allies still have plenty of one thing that could help them prevail over President Obama and win the White House: money.
The GOP presidential campaign and conservative outside groups will bring significant cash into the race’s final weeks, enabling them to blitz the nation’s airwaves in support of Romney. That’s a new wrinkle in a race that has seen Romney outspent by Obama in most swing states. Though Romney has raised more cash overall than Obama, some was for party committees and much of the money he raised for his own campaign was designated for the general election. That meant it could not be spent until he officially became the nominee last month.
That coming financial flood is a source of concern among Democrats, who privately acknowledge that the money is an unknown factor in a race many them otherwise feel confident about. But Republicans also concede that additional millions spent on TV advertising could fail to reach voters already sick of politics and certain in their opinion of both candidates.
“That’s the kind of thing you only know on November 7,” said Rich Galen, a longtime GOP consultant, referring to the day after the election. “You can’t know that in advance.”
For Romney, the dilemma is one of diminishing returns. He and groups like American Crossroads have the money to saturate the airwaves with their message. But showing voters the same message 30 times instead of 20 is of uncertain value, particularly when many of the same men and women have been subjected to countless ads already.
In other words, the ads might be playing, but some voters have already tuned out.
“I think every day the ads are a little less relevant,” said Bill Burton, cofounder of the Obama-aligned outside group Priorities USA Action. “Voters pay more attention to what’s happening on the news and what friends are telling them.”
Burton’s own group is in the midst of a pledged $30 million ad campaign set to air through Election Day. But its most effective ads were aired beginning in May, when it used a series of spots critical of Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital to define Romney as hostile to the middle class.
Further complicating Romney’s quest is the task of taking on an incumbent president. By their nature, White House races are consumed less by paid media than their down-ballot counterparts and more by media coverage. Ads that can win a Senate or House race simply don’t break through the clutter as well in the contest for the country’s highest office. And opinions are far more difficult to sway about a politician who has served more than three and a half years in the spotlight.
Many Republican strategists don’t share that pessimism, however. Gene Ulm, a veteran GOP consultant, said that pundits have speculated for years that voters would tune out an excess of paid media — even when campaigns ran far fewer ads than they do now. Voters’ appetite for media keeps growing. “The goalposts keep moving,” said Ulm.
He doesn’t disagree with the premise that earned media matters more in a presidential race. But, he adds, that’s the point. Much of what reporters cover in the presidential race is driven by what ads the campaigns use.
“Advertising is public affairs in nature,” he said. “It affects the news cycle, the front pages of the newspaper, and what people are talking about. In presidential races, that matters even more.”
In 2008, Republican John McCain was outspent badly by Obama in the home stretch of the campaign. His loss is usually attributed to factors like the collapse of Wall Street and Sarah Palin’s shortcomings as a running mate. But Republicans are quick to say that it didn’t help that his nearly broke campaign was up against a campaign capable of funding 30-minute infomercials over broadcast TV.
And not all GOP outside groups are dedicated to using their money for ad campaigns in the final weeks of the campaign. Americans for Prosperity, an independent Republican organization, plans to spend tens of millions of dollars on door-knocking and phone-banking efforts, largely in lieu of on-air ads. “A lot of our focus will be transferred to the ground game,” said spokesman Levi Russell.