So the chorus seems to go every election cycle. In 2008, Barack Obama lit up the internet and the sexy medium was digital. But now he's "just" another incumbent president locked in a tight race, closely following the playbook of the last incumbent to win a tight race, and he's relying heavily on TV's push as well as the internet's pull.
The hot medium of 2012 is cable. Local cable, to be exact -- national cable's higher-maintenance but cheaper sibling.
President George W. Bush's campaign applied national cable advertising to storied effect in 2004, when the race for the White House sprawled across a dozen states and buying local cable for all those markets would have cost almost the same as national.
In 2012, with a nine-state battlefield and more cost-efficient local cable sales policies, Obama's campaign is leveraging spot cable to what they hope will be similar effect. Their Republican foes have followed suit to varying degrees.
As a result, Kantar Media CMAG anticipates that local cable will account for roughly 20% of all presidential-campaign ad dollars that go toward TV, or at least $200 million, as well as 20% of spending on all political advertising. We expect digital to account for about 6% of all political ad spend.
Local cable offers less reach than broadcast but also offers TV advertisers the last relatively uncluttered terrain. In an era of microtargeting, it combines broadcast's push to undecided and passive voters with the geographic and demographic fine-tuning of digital. (Disclosure: local cable's leading industry representative, NCC Media, is a client of Kantar Media CMAG's broadcast ad data.)
Advertising on local cable takes serious brass. Think about the eye-crossing array of options you see sandwiched between the broadcast networks whenever you press "guide." Every ad occurrence represents an individually targeted calculation by a media buyer; a substantial presidential buy represents millions of decisions.
The reason political advertisers invest all this effort goes to the heart of the difference between the cable and broadcast-TV business models. Broadcast still depends on shows that appeal to much wider swaths of people. Cable networks assemble programming genres and demographics into as big a Rubik's cube as the market will bear. Then local cable systems serve up those programs as narrowly as county by county.
A particular cable show might index higher -- i.e., skew even more strongly than a broadcast show -- toward a sought-after demographic within a critical geographic area. You can index higher on gender, ideology, age bracket, Washington elites, etc. "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," for example, index even better than local newscasts for higher-turnout independents.
Reflection of broader strategy
Just like their broadcast buys, the Obama and Mitt Romney spot cable buys reflect their broader strategies. Obama's campaign advertised early and heavily over the five months in an effort to define Romney before the fall. Not only did they expect to be outspent by Republicans, but they figured political ad clutter could become an issue by September.
From the start of the general election campaign on April 10 to September 16, Obama aired 311,433 spots on local cable, according to NCC Media -- 9,000 more spots than the 302,134 he aired on local broadcast, national network and national cable, per Kantar Media CMAG. His top cable networks are the Food Network, HGTV, CNN, ESPN, The History Channel and USA. He's been buying local news channels in North Carolina and Florida; Spanish local cable such as CNN Espanol, History Espanol and ESPN Espanol; and high-indexing women's programming.
Romney began buying local cable after the Democratic convention ended, in tune with his campaign's strategy to build momentum from August onward. The 12,323 spots he aired in 10 days account for 11% of his 114,471 overall general-election spot count, again per NCC and CMAG data. The Romney campaign's top choices are CNN, FOX News, HGTV and Lifetime. Translation: Republicans and women.
Republican groups filled the void for Romney on local cable just as they did on broadcast. Two pro-Romney super PACs, Restore Our Future and American Future Fund, together aired more than 220,000 spots.
Challenges of going local
Beyond the millions of calculations that go into local cable advertising, the additional challenges are hefty. Only 120 seconds of inventory an hour is up for sale.
Ad rates also are negotiable and highly sensitive to demand. The Obama campaign buys a mix of local and national cable and holds out the prospect of buying more national in order to win better prices from local.
Spot cable also misses the direct satellite audience, which can account for up to 30% of households in many markets.
Still, there's an upside to the scarcity of inventory: Your 30-second ad would be one of only a few political ads to air per hour, whereas on broadcast, more than 20 30-second political spots can air in an hour. Chances are the audience isn't being overwhelmed and is more likely to take notice of yours.
With just about all remaining pre-Election Day broadcast ad inventory spoken for, spot cable is also the only platform where a sizable amount of new inventory has been created, thanks to ESPN's decision to increase the amount of local ad time it provides through NCC, allowing political advertisers to target particular markets during pro and college sports.
Despite tempting niche-targeting possibilities, advertisers have yet to start producing ads exclusively for local cable. Neither nominee has aired anything on local cable that hasn't also aired on broadcast. As experienced ad-makers know, if you run a spot exclusively on cable with its smaller audiences and fewer available slots, it takes longer for the spot to really resonate, by which point its message has been overtaken by other events.
All these reasons show why "passé" local spot broadcast's 56% of all presidential ad spend probably isn't shrinking anytime soon. It's too critical a channel for reaching those few hundred thousand passive voters who are going to decide the presidency. Local cable, however, is increasingly becoming an avenue to reach voters who should be yours -- they just need a little reminder.