Ad-Spending Battlefield Takes Shape

McCain, RNC Hope for Close-Quarters Fight With Cash-Strong Obama

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Evan Tracey Evan Tracey
With 115 days left before the election, it is now clear what ad strategies the two candidates are going to use in the race for the White House. Sen. Barack Obama will attempt to expand the playing field, while Sen. John McCain will try to contract it.

TV spending targeting the general election has reached more than $3 million a day. With more than $42 million spent on TV advertising since May, it's clear this election's ad spending is on pace to be one for the record books.

So far, the McCain campaign has taken advantage of its early primary win and strong Republican Party fundraising to get a head start in crucial battleground states like Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Since April, McCain and the RNC have spent more than $19 million on ads. The combined spending of the two entities now tops $1.5 million a day. With the RNC so well-funded, it and the McCain team will be able to play the good cop/bad cop game with the electorate, allowing the McCain team to run a largely positive campaign.

The Obama campaign is relying on its ability to out-fundraise and outspend its opponents. Since June 20, Obama has narrowed the ad spending gap with McCain by spending close to $15 million in almost 20 states. This strategy has put the focus not only on the historic swing states, but on a number of recent red states. Team Obama is pouring millions into states such as Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina, Montana, North Dakota and Florida in an effort to extend the battleground this fall. He is hoping to put McCain into a hole he can't dig out of with just his public-matching funds.

So what are the possible outcomes of the two strategies?

For Mr. McCain to be successful this fall, he needs to minimize the number of battleground states in play after the GOP convention. To accomplish his goal, he must use his ads and message to gain support in both red and swing states. This will allow his monetary disadvantage to be mitigated in the same way a small guy can fight a big guy in a confined space. However, if Mr. Obama is able to drum up support in red states, it will be over for Mr. McCain before Halloween.

In the red states, Mr. Obama must be mindful of his true ceilings in the polls. If his summer ad spending in the red states can only achieve a slim lead, then a few weeks of GOP ad spending this fall on conservative core issues -- such as gun control and abortion -- could swing these states back to red. Thus, the money he spends now would be a total waste. Additionally, since the Obama campaign appears ready, willing and able to carry its own message without the help of the DNC, it must be both the good cop and the bad cop. Therefore, any attack ads must be run on the Obama brand -- a brand that promotes itself as above those tactics.

Finally, the reality of McCain/Feingold 3.0 is that independent expenditures will be vital to an effective campaign strategy this fall. The wild card in this race will be the role that 527s and other independent expenditures play in the lead-up to Election Day. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the part of McCain/Feingold that restricted ads running within 60 days of an election. This reallocates spending to later on in the race and opens up the possibility of last-minute attack ads from shadow groups that could throw the race into turmoil. More likely, a pro-McCain/anti-Obama group will decide to focus its entire ad spending on a state like North Carolina or Georgia, proving to be a big help to the cash-strapped McCain campaign. Conversely, if pro-Obama groups took to the air in must-win states with an effective message, it could spell doom for McCain in a close race.

As the summer marches on, the two things to watch are the poll numbers in the swing and red states as well as the role that shadow groups play. These numbers and actions will dictate changes in messages and strategies post-conventions.

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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.