So Much for Early Predictions

The Advertising Race Has Been Surprising

By Published on .

Evan Tracey Evan Tracey
If you had told me back in January that after Labor Day Rudy Giuliani would have aired zero TV ads, John McCain would have just run his first ad, Mitt Romney would have run ads unchecked on the airways in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, that Bill Richardson would have spent more on TV ads than John Edwards and Hillary Clinton combined, and that only a handful of states would have even seen presidential ad buys, I would have said you were crazy. Well, call me crazy.

What a year it's been so far, and as we head full steam into the fall election season here is where things stand.

The Republicans
Mitt Romney has aired nearly 10,000 TV spots since late February and spent close to $8 million dollars with a majority of his spending in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is now expanding this strategy to South Carolina and Florida. To date, John McCain has relied on some internet ads to drive organization and fundraising. In hopes of reviving his campaign in New Hampshire, he released his first TV commercial last week. Rudy Giuliani continues to build a Feb. 5 war chest and has used some radio ads and the web -- and yes, the New York Times -- to make some strategic points along the way.

Others in the race such as Fred Thompson, Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter have used only a handful of TV ads to announce their intentions to run for the White House and drum up some last-minute support for the Ames Straw Poll. As for the internet, only a few hundred thousand has been spent online with, you guessed it, the Romney campaign leading the way.

The Democrats
On the other hand, Democrats running to replace George Bush have not held back when it comes to using TV ads. Bill Richardson leads the pack, airing over 4,000 commercials in an effort to move up in the polls in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Barack Obama is close behind with close to $2 million invested in TV time, mostly in Iowa. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, because of their profiles, were able to skip the typical bio spots and have spent far less. The Edwards campaign has made relatively small buys in Iowa and New Hampshire, but has also used ad buys tactically on cable TV and in Washington to inject himself into the Iraq war debate. Clinton, on the other hand, has spent over $1 million on TV in just five weeks and her latest buys on South Carolina radio signal the campaign is serious about running the table on the early primaries.

Others on the Democratic side of the ledger have gotten in on the act with the Biden and Dodd campaigns combining for over $1 million dollars in TV ad spending with compelling messages about the war and global warming. As for the Democrats use of web advertising, the Obama campaign leads the way with almost $300,000 in online spending, Clinton and Edwards have also spent on online ads.

What it means
What can we take away from the early ad wars?

The Iowa caucus is a "make or break" for all of the campaigns. Three campaigns (Richardson, Obama and Romney) have already spent more than the eventual winner spent in total on Iowa TV in 2003.

Clearly, money will not be a problem for the front runners. Clinton, Obama, Giuliani and Romney will have all the cash they need for the early states and could even try to extend buys towards Feb. 5 states.

Money is going to be the key for candidates trying to knock off the front runners with early-state ad buys. Edwards' move to public funding signals a "future is now" strategy that will infuse the campaign with cash for Iowa and New Hampshire ad buys, but will leave the campaign low on cash if it moves on to the general election.

The made-for-TV candidate Fred Thompson will remain a wildcard in the race for the GOP. Thompson will have raised enough money in a very short period of time to get his mug into your living room on something other than "Law and Order" reruns.

Cable TV is part of the 2008 plan. The Romney campaign has spent close to $2 million on network cable and all the others in the race have combined for $4 million on local cable.

Groups are going to become a big part of the picture as well. We've already seen some group activity this year. A few examples: the League of Conservation Voters looking for a "Green" candidate in Iowa; the AARP spending big bucks on the "divided we fail" campaign to promote health care and financial security issues to the candidates, voters and press; and one ad in the New York Times by MoveOn.org that has reminded us how independent ads can overpower the momentum in a race.

As we head into the next phase of the Presidential ad war, there will be even more surprises in store. I am done trying to predict this race and the strategies we'll see the rest of the way. I suspect the campaigns will still pound away in Iowa and New Hampshire, but we'll have to wait on answers for a few key questions: Who goes negative first? What role will independent groups ultimately play? Will anyone be around to air an ad on the Super Bowl?

Call me crazy, but I think its going to be a fun race to watch.

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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.
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