The forces that have set the stage for this season's record-breaking ad spending can be traced back to elections from the past two decades. The Clinton 1996 stealth strategy was the precursor to the early-advertising strategies we see today. Fundraising increases and group tactics can be traced back to changes in the campaign finance laws in 2003. Heavy use of internet fundraising began in the 2000 election. Joe Lieberman's primary loss in 2006 sparked incumbent insecurity. All of these forces have come together to create today's political environment of considerable ad spending and an ever-lengthening ad cycle.
What We've Seen So Far2008 Spending
Gone are the days when political ads came in nice, neat packages from Labor Day to Election Day. Campaign 2008 has been the longest on record, with ads airing as far back as December 2006. Historically, election ad spending has come in large chunks during the final 60 days, with that timeframe representing at least 70% of the total spending. As the amount spent on political and issue advertising creeps toward $800 million, and the average weekly spending now more than $23 million ($10 million more than the same time in 2004), we appear well on the way to set new records for political and issue ad spending in Campaign 2008.
The main spending drivers continue to be the historic race for the White House, ultra-competitive state and local landscapes and issue ads prompted by record energy costs and a weakening economy. Those pesky ballot measures add hundreds of millions of dollars more.
The Race for the White House
With all due deference to Bob Barr, Ralph Nader and the eight others running for the White House, we are down to the final two: Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. The primary was the longest and most expensive in history, and ads played a deciding role in the strategies for both winning candidates. The two had one feature in common with their ad strategies: They bet heavily on TV ads in early primary states, which eventually secured their nominations.
However, the ad wars in the general election have been dominated by two distinct and opposing strategies. Obama's red-state strategy has pushed millions of dollars into states whose TV stations did not anticipate such heavy political spending this early in the campaign. Secondly, Obama's network Olympic buys may possibly foreshadow a greater use of network TV in the fall.
McCain, by contrast, is relying on "red state America" to come home to the GOP on Election Day and is not following Obama's lead with his own buys (yet). With some help from the Republican National Committee, McCain continues to focus on the traditional battleground states and has outspent Obama in most states where they both are on the air. The biggest unknown is why the McCain campaign is not spending noteworthy ad dollars in Florida. Perhaps he has something up his sleeve, such as picking a famous Floridian as his running mate. (Or perhaps not.)
The biggest spending anomalies of Campaign 2008 have come from groups attempting to drive public-policy debates using the election as a backdrop. Groups such as AARP, American Cancer Society and the Gates Foundation, as well as billionaire T. Boone Pickens, have spent tens of millions of dollars, mostly on cable news ads. These ads are pushing issues ranging from health care and the environment to school funding and energy independence. These ads are also likely to greet the new president and Congress next year.
The combined spending on presidential general election ads has exceeded $71 million in the past two months, with the average daily spending topping $2 million.
State and Local Spending
Not to be lost in the glow of the presidential race, state and local ad spending have been dominated by a handful of governors' races and down-ballot campaigns. Spending is on the rise, and the number of office seekers using TV ads continues to expand, driving more ad spending into local media markets. Thus far, we've seen a combined $50 million on U.S. House and Senate races, another $20 million on gubernatorial races and over $100 million on ballot measures.
In the House and Senate races, Democrats have been using the gains made in 2006 as well as overall party enthusiasm to take fundraising to new heights. The goal for the Democrats in 2008 is a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Therefore, many Senate races are now in the crosshairs of party committees, well-funded challengers and many liberal interest groups. The GOP is not waiting around for Labor Day to respond. Republican incumbents in the Senate are unleashing ad buys in a number of key states. This is all going on while open-Senate-seat ad wars rage on in Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado.
U.S. House races are starting to see increased spending daily. Democrats want to add to their 2006 pick-ups, and Republicans hope to reverse this trend.
The Messages and Themes
With record prices being paid at the pump, energy is the dominant theme of this election thus far. To date, office holders and seekers have spent close to $200 million on ads outlining plans and assigning blame for the high costs of energy. Next on the list of topics is health care, on which politicians have spent more than $130 million on ads. Other issues being discussed repeatedly in political ads this year include immigration, education, trade and the war in Iraq.
On the HorizonAs we march toward Election Day, the race for the White House is going to get noisier by the second. Spending on TV ads will continue to build in the battleground states we've come to know and love over the years. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Florida and many others all stand in the sweet spot for record ad spending. However, several questions will be answered over the next few weeks that could change the strategies of the candidates and groups.
One question is: Will Obama's media buys and/or his VP choice bring any of these red states into play after the GOP convention? If, for example, Obama chooses somebody like Sam Nunn from Georgia, the millions he already spent combined with the candidacy of former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr could push the state into battleground status. This shift would introduce millions of dollars into these markets, most likely at the expense of another state.
Another question: Will the calendar run out before the money? With this year's drawn-out Democratic primary, the traditional presidential ad cycle has been condensed. It seems more likely that time may run out before the money does. If TV inventory starts to dry up, then campaigns and interest groups will look for other outlets to relay their message. This would bode well for local and network cable, radio, outdoor and possibly even sports sponsorships in the final weeks. As reported, the Obama campaign is testing the water with a $5 million network TV buy during the Olympics. If this medium delivers the desired audience, then look for more money on national platforms this fall.
Money has already played a huge role in this race. Obama's record fundraising has allowed him to thus far buy more ads than any other candidate in history. He can therefore use more niche media, target more states and produce more ads. Obama's money, along with the lackluster and late-arriving GOP money, forced the McCain campaign to take public matching funds. This decision will limit his option in the fall and force the Arizona senator to use media efficiently.
The messages are likely to take a negative turn as McCain and the Republicans turn up the heat on Obama. A recent set of ads criticized Obama's trip overseas and linked him to high gas prices. The race has tightened in states where these ads have aired, so expect to see more of them in the coming weeks. This tactic may be useful in keeping the race close and delaying any movement of undecided voters. Negative ads are effective in creating indecision among voters, but McCain and the GOP will need to find issues to persuade swing voters to come to their side. The key for McCain will be to keep the battleground states close while not losing ground in the traditional red states.
For Obama, the campaign needs to find the right set of issues and messages to keep the McCain campaign off balance. Obama must be cautious about using negative ads, because he has tried to operate as an unconventional candidate and a flurry of attack ads could dismay his new supporters.
Issue groups, 527s and others have been largely silent thus far. However, outside money and messages can find their way into the race rather quickly. In 2004, it was not until after the Democratic Convention that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth started running its ads. Beginning with relatively small ad campaigns, the group eventually spent more than $20 million, severely damaging Sen. John Kerry's bid for the White House. This year, 527 groups will not have to abide by the 60-day blackout period before an election due to the Supreme Court's ruling against it. Consequently, many groups will wait a few weeks before Election Day to air their ads, causing a flood of ad buys into battleground states.
Complicating the media landscape is the hundreds of millions in ad spending for state and local races. With the stakes so high, there will be millions spent by the candidates, the political parties and groups in the coming months. In some cases, this money is already being placed. We will likely see records in all categories of political spending. Finally, ballot measures, which are always a wild card, will pump millions more into at least two dozen states.
This year has been full of firsts, and these last 100 days will bring plenty more surprises on many different levels. We can expect new strategies, tactics and messages that will be the foundation for future elections and ad spending trends.
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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.