Heading into Super Duper Tuesday, it's useful to take a look at how much money has been spent on TV to date. So far, TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG has tracked over 180,000 TV spots on local and national broadcast as well as national cable at an estimated cost of $158 million by candidates and groups, with 21,000 of those spots ($16 million worth) airing between Jan. 24 and Jan. 30 alone. That compares to overall spending of about $17 million for local cable and a projected $2 million in online spending.
Leading the charge at the moment is Mitt Romney's campaign with over 35,000 airings and $30 million worth of TV ads in the early states. Catching up in a hurry are Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, whose campaigns have spent close to $20 million apiece. Issue groups have used TV ads mainly to promote policy agendas such as education, healthcare and retirement security with only a handful of them running TV ads attacking or supporting candidates in the race.
Mr. Romney, obviously, isn't exactly getting the best ROI, considering that Sen. John McCain seems to have emerged this week as the strong front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination. Mr. McCain isn't only leading in delegates, he's also racking up important endorsements and being lavished with free media attention.
But it wasn't just straight talk that established Sen. John McCain as the man to beat for the Republican nomination. While Mr. McCain will always be linked to the surge strategy in Iraq, the "McCain Surge" could easily have a double meaning. The McCain campaign based its strategy on starting strong with a win in New Hampshire. A win, they correctly calculated, would provide them with the momentum and money needed for the next three states.
The McCain ad surge started in October 2007 with an average of a million dollars a month in media buys in New Hampshire. Mr. McCain then carried these spending levels into Michigan, where pundits only expected a second-place finish—which he delivered. His ad surge strategy propelled his success in South Carolina and Florida. The surge was most impressive in Florida, where Mr. McCain nearly matched Rudy Giuliani's five-week spending level in just one week.
The question now, in marketing terms, is whether Mr. McCain can raise enough money after his Florida victory to promote his candidacy with TV ads, with some also asking whether he needs to. Or will the exposure, momentum and endorsements be enough to secure the delegates needed to capture the GOP nomination?
Mr. Romney has only one choice at this point: spend more. Mr. Romney outspent McCain almost 3 to 1 with his 11-month, $30 million deluge of ads in the early states. Considering his current standings, his ROI isn't anything to brag about. As Mr. Romney prepares for one last volley of ads focused in a handful of Feb. 5 states, the question for his campaign is: Will he be protecting his investment or cutting his losses on Feb. 6?
But Romney wasn't the only one who may have miscalculated. In my 20-20 hindsight of the ad buys, it is clear most of the candidates put too much hope and media budgets into the early states, embracing the conventional wisdom that Super Tuesday would be little more than a victory lap for each party's nominee. Following this strategy caused over-spending in Iowa and New Hampshire (close to $80 million) and now leaves the remaining campaigns scrambling for cash and buying TV time day to day, the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck.
For the Democrats, the combined total of almost $50 million spent on TV ads by the two front runners is impressive, but the total will rise with a rocket-like trajectory as the final two candidates' extensive buys now canvas the country to target Super Tuesday and beyond.
Ms. Clinton, fresh off her "win" in Florida (where the candidates didn't campaign because the state had been stripped of its delegates), is focusing close to $5 million on 14 states, with the heaviest spending in California, Arizona and New York. Ms. Clinton has unveiled a number of new ads that take the fight to President Bush, as well as directly to her rival, Mr. Obama.
The Obama campaign has spent more than $6 million in 16 states since its South Carolina victory, with the most money focused towards local buys in California and Georgia, as well as on national cable. So far, the Obama campaign has chosen not to follow Ms. Clinton's strategy of statewide buys. Instead, they are focusing their spending on large population centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. That may be a way to win even if he loses the state. With Democratic delegates being proportional, if Obama is able to over-perform on Election Day in these regions, he will still salvage many of the coveted delegates. Expect to see a similar pattern in Ms. Clinton's home state of New York.
Feb. 6 will provide us with some additional clarity, but the race won't necessarily end there. There are still a number of primaries to go, with large states such as Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio remaining. Will Texas and Ohio, who both hold primaries on March 4, give us a repeat of ad spending like we witnessed in Iowa and New Hampshire? As it is, the Obama campaign is buying advertising in post Feb. 5 states including Washington State, Nebraska, Louisiana, Maine, Washington D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
And Rep. Ron Paul, who's been all but written out of the race, still has more than $20 million to spend at this point. The campaign has begun buying in states such as Texas and, down the stretch, could outspend rivals on TV.
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Evan Tracey is the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.