Kantar Media's CMAG gets asked a lot these days to try and quantify what TV viewers in top 2012 markets will experience between now and November 6. Forecasting the unprecedented is tough to do. The number of well-funded Republican group advertisers has exploded; Barack Obama's campaign came out swinging early and hard with no let-up; and now-official GOP nominee Mitt Romney has hundreds of millions of general election ad dollars to spend on TV with just eight weeks left in the race.
Further down the ballot, many markets that are crucial to the presidential race, like the three named above, are also hosting key races in the battle for the Senate. Add in any competitive congressional and state legislative races and ballot measures in those areas, and the result is a level of ad clutter that 's never been seen before.
Here's a stab at gauging the coming ad whiteout based on what we already know. To best depict what's going to be apparent to the viewer, let's talk in terms of spot counts.
The Republican armada
The most marked changes in what viewers will see this fall compared with prior falls is not only in how many ads will confront them, but who is behind them. The explosion of Republican groups -- super PACs, 501(c)(4) organizations, trade associations with political arms -- is without question the biggest development in all 2012 advertising.
At the presidential level alone, between April 10 (when Romney unofficially claimed the party's nomination) and early September, these groups accounted for 55% of all presidential ads aired on the Republican side. The remaining 45% were aired by Romney and the Republican National Committee. During this same timeframe in 2008, only 3% of all Republican ads were sponsored by outside groups; 97% were aired by the McCain campaign or the RNC.
On the Democratic side, the difference between 2008 and 2012 is negligible: 91% of all presidential ads aired during the April-September period in 2012 were sponsored by either the Obama campaign or the Democratic National Committee; just 9% of the ads aired came from outside groups such as Priorities USA Action. In 2008, the breakdown was 96% to 4%.
While the Romney campaign will start accounting for a higher percentage of spots now that it's got more money to spend, groups will continue to claim a previously unheard-of portion of GOP presidential ads. These groups are faceless, prohibited from coordinating with the Romney campaign on message or from gaining access to the candidate for footage. Their ads are more likely to be negative, and any positive ads will rely heavily on surrogates.
2,870 ads a week in one market
How many ads will viewers see? Those in a sampling of politically crucial markets already are seeing anywhere from three to 12 times the number of presidential ads from recent cycles.
During the week of August 15-22 , the most recent "typical" week in the current presidential race (i.e., one without either a nominating convention or the traditional September 11 dark day), 1,842 presidential ads aired in the Columbus, Ohio market. That's three times the 608 presidential ad occurrences that aired in Columbus during the same week eight years ago. Four years ago, 832 presidential spots aired there during the same week.
In the Las Vegas market, the presidential spot count for August 15-22 has grown from 867 in 2004, to 925 in 2008, to 2,870 in 2012 -- a more than threefold increase since 2004.
And in Orlando, the spot count has grown from zero -- yes, zero -- in 2004, to 153 in 2008, to 1,863 in 2012. That's a 12-fold increase in just four years. Don't assume Orlando wasn't a key presidential market in 2004. It was. This is just a blast from a seemingly long ago past reminding us of how presidential advertising used to play out: it wasn't unusual for candidates to go dark in some areas for stretches of the summer.
However, it's worth noting that August 15-22 ,2004 was the week when then-Democratic nominee John Kerry declined to advertise in response to the Swift Boat smear campaign against him, a dark time that helped cost him the presidency.
43,000 ads a day
Again, these exponential increases are at the presidential level only. They don't include any increases in spot occurrences in tight Senate races where outside groups, and mainly Republican groups, have jumped in earlier and bigger than ever.
Here's another way to scope out what's to come. As of early September 2008, we had seen 832,291 spots representing all political advertising on local broadcast TV for the 2008 cycle up until that point, with an ultimate total of 2.29 million by Election Night. In other words, by this point in the cycle, we were 36 % of the way there.
As of early this month, we have seen 1.3 million ad occurrences for all political advertising on local spot TV. If we're 36 % of the way there once again, that means we have another 2.3 million ad occurrences left to air in less than two months for an ultimate total of 3.6 million. That's about 43,000 spot occurrences per day for the rest of the election cycle, give or take a few.
These percentages go to the heart of the two presidential nominees' vastly differing strategies to win.
The Obama campaign has seen this contest as a seven-month run, while the Romney campaign has seen it as a three-month sprint. Team O. has bet a few hundred million advertising dollars on winning by undercutting Romney's candidacy before the airwaves become completely saturated and September and October ads start reaping diminishing returns. This wasn't just a hunch for the Obama campaign -- it was a calculation made out of necessity given the GOP's bench of well-funded outside groups.
The Romney campaign is betting on total saturation this fall to persuade voters that the country can't afford another four years with Obama in charge of the economy. They purposely waited until the Olympics and GOP convention to start the rollout of Romney's biography as a successful businessman, family man and savior of the 2002 Olympics, and to introduce his running mate and overall vision for America. This, too, was a decision made partly out of necessity given that Romney had to wait until he became the official GOP nominee to access hundreds of millions of dollars for advertising.
As we enter this eight-week ad whiteout, whichever campaign has made the right bet will win the presidency.