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Approaching the Quarter-Billion Dollar Primary Mark

But First, a Moment of Airwave Silence

By Published on . 0

Evan Tracey Evan Tracey
Hear that?

Yep, nothing. Mark the date, March 12, in your campaign 2008 scorers' book as the day the ads went silent in the race for the White House. Besides Christmas day, this is the first day the airwaves in the primary states have not run a single TV ad by any candidates or issue groups since mid-February 2007.

After a big storm passes, it is always wise to stick your head out to look for damage and, more important, more storms on the horizon. So far in this election, the damage is pretty minor, but the next storm may be packing the real punch. For the most part, the campaign ads have focused on candidate biography, issues such as health care, energy and the Iraq war, and nebulous things such as hope, experience and "restoring the middle class." Groups have run spots promoting issues and agendas such as abortion, global warming and workers' rights. We have yet to see any truly negative attack ads, which may in some way account for the lack of separation in the Democratic field.

By the numbers, this race is on a record pace. Nearly 550 different TV commercials have aired more than 277,000 times, at an estimated $211 million. Add in another $30 million to $40 million on cable, radio and Internet ads and we are quickly approaching a quarter of a billion dollars on ads for the presidential race alone.

Combined, the Democrats have outspent the Republicans by over $50 million. Sen. Obama's campaign has not only outspent Sen. Clinton's campaign by close to $17 million on TV ads, his campaign is only $3 million short of outspending all the Republican candidates combined -- a marker he will surely pass in the coming weeks.

The race has thus far had three distinct phases. Phase One consisted of the first five states receiving nearly $100 million in ad spending. This was driven by the need for early momentum and the full field of candidates for both major political parties. Phase Two included the Super Duper Tuesday (Feb. 5) states; it received close to $48 million and was driven by the remaining candidates. Finally, the handful of states that followed Feb. 5 made up phase three and received over $33 million, the bulk of which came from two candidates in two states, Senators Clinton and Obama in Texas and Ohio.

The next phase of this race in terms of ad spending and ad tone is more ambiguous. There is no playbook or forecast for what lies ahead. We have seemingly winner-take-all stakes in Pennsylvania -- and six weeks left to campaign. The negative ad bell has already been rung with the Clinton's "3 a.m." spot, and I find it hard to believe that the Obama campaign will sit back and allow the Clinton campaign to set the tempo again. However, if the Obama campaign runs negative ads, it runs the risk of hurting his positive image or seeing his "movement" turn into a "political campaign."

Paging 527's: Obama's good cop is in search of a bad cop.

Lurking on the horizon are Florida and Michigan, which have the possibility (albeit unlikely) of a do-over, thus freezing some resources that otherwise might be put to work in Pennsylvania.

So lather the aloe on those sunburns, put down the umbrella drinks and don't miss those return flights home, we're about to see if this primary race is coming to a close or just beginning another new phase

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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.