The quadrennial hope for the debates is that the two nominees will fill in any blanks that have been left by their ads. Political ads are the advertisers' versions of reality; debates are supposed to more closely reflect Americans' reality.
Of course, one measure of whether the debates have fulfilled their mission is whether they drive changes in ad messaging. Here's your benchmark on which issues have and haven't been addressed in pre-debate ads, and by whom.
In the 2012 general election campaign alone, 1.1 million references have been made in ads to jobs, taxes, the budget and government spending. In contrast, fewer than 25,000 references have been made to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fewer than 100,000 ad occurrences have mentioned education; fewer than 10,000 have mentioned defense. About 4,000 have mentioned immigration; fewer than 400 have mentioned the U.S. Supreme Court.
From April (when the race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney began) through the first day of October, 309 unique ads have aired a collective 797,553 times. Many ads mention more than one issue. For example, taxes are often paired with government spending, Medicare with healthcare, etc.
Certain ads have aired thousands of times apiece across 60-plus media markets; others have aired a few times in a few markets, or only once. Our informal survey takes a little license in equalizing airings across media markets and dayparts, regardless of differing ad rates or audience size, which is a no-no in any serious evaluation of advertising but is fine for this simpler purpose.
Democratic presidential advertisers have gone wider on the issues than their GOP counterparts. As the largest single advertiser thus far, Obama has sought to promote his accomplishments (with the lagging exception of the Affordable Care Act), in part to compensate for economic recovery work that remains undone. He also has leveraged certain issues to target specific demographics such as women and young people, as noted below.
The GOP advertising complex, consisting of the Romney campaign and numerous outside groups, has gone deep on a narrower set of subjects. Their focus has been on topics where Obama's poll standing is weak, namely the economy and the Affordable Care Act, while traditional go-to GOP themes such as national security and social issues have largely been set aside.
The three most-mentioned issues in presidential ads by far are all related to the economy. With 530,387 mentions, jobs ring in at number one. The split between Democrats and Republicans is more even on jobs than on any other major issue: 45% of the mentions have been made in Democratic ads, 55% in Republican ads.
The next most-mentioned issue, taxes, leans Democratic: 70% of the 312,065 airings mentioning taxes have been sponsored by Democrats, which means the ads have been heavier on accusations of Republicans wanting to raise taxes on the middle class or give tax cuts to millionaires.
The third most-mentioned category, the budget and government spending, includes Obama's stimulus package -- a major point of attack for Republican outside groups. This issue tilts strongly toward the GOP: 69% of the 304,258 spot occurrences mentioning it have been sponsored by Republican advertisers.
China's trade practices have come up in 49,297 airings. A newly popular GOP line of attack against Obama, spearheaded by Romney ads, 74% of the airings have been sponsored by Republicans. The remainder were sponsored by the Obama campaign.
Meanwhile, home ownership has leaned strongly Democratic: 81% of the 22 ,754 mentions in ads have been by Democratic advertisers.
While the financial crisis and its aftermath have gotten plenty of attention from presidential advertisers, efforts to address the problems that led to the crisis haven't played as prominently. No surprise here given that both sides depend on campaign contributions from the financial services sector, but as a result, financial reform has come up in only 31,807 ad occurrences. Of those, 66% have been sponsored by Democrats.
More than twice as many occurrences -- 66,924 -- have included negative mentions of Bain Capital. All were sponsored by Democrats; 76% were sponsored by Obama.
Another 18,085 references to Bain were positive -- all aired by Republican outside groups. One standout example is super PAC Restore Our Future's ad featuring former Bain executive Robert Gay recounting how when his teenage daughter went missing, Romney shut down the office and marshaled the staff to find her. It remains one of the very few positive ads to air about Romney.
After the economy, healthcare has been the most frequently mentioned issue in presidential ads, appearing in 194,600 airings with a Democratic tilt of 59%. Drilling down into specific mentions of the Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare," however, we find that Republicans have aired 59,630 negative mentions compared to Democrats' 15,725 positive ones.
Seventy-seven percent of all 47,966 airings mentioning Medicare have been sponsored by Democrats, plus all 10,389 mentions of Social Security. The insurance sector also has taken a beating from Democratic presidential advertisers, with 24,535 anti-insurance mentions so far.
After health care comes energy and the environment, with 118,689 airings and another roughly even split between the two sides: 44% Republican, 56% Democratic. Included in those counts are 31,581 Solyndra references, 8,154 references to the Keystone XL pipeline, and 1,053 anti-Environmental Protection Agency mentions, all by Republican advertisers -- and 1,330 pro-EPA mentions by Democrats.
Ninety-five percent of the 99,106 presidential ad occurrences that have mentioned education have been aired by Democrats. Nearly all of those have been sponsored by the Obama campaign. Ads include the recent Obama spot attacking Romney for suggesting that students borrow tuition money from their parents and earlier ads promoting Obama's efforts to make college more affordable.
All 2,024 mentions of international affairs have been in ads sponsored by Republicans. Ads by pro-Israel groups that criticize Obama account for many of these. But when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, 23,971 of a total 24,070 mentions -- or 99.6% -- were in ads sponsored by the Obama campaign.
Of the 33,816 ad occurrences mentioning abortion, 33,686 -- or all but 130 of them -- were aired by Democratic sponsors. In its push to women voters, the Obama campaign has aired a series of spots featuring women criticizing Romney's positions on abortion and Planned Parenthood funding. Planned Parenthood's own political arm has advertised, as well. This is a bit of a GOP growth area, however, with a couple of groups now airing ads attacking Obama's position on abortion in Ohio and Virginia.
Of the 4,057 presidential ad occurrences mentioning immigration, 80% were sponsored by Democrats.
Of the 56 ad occurrences mentioning gay marriage, 55 were sponsored by Republicans. Many of these ads aired in the Charlotte market during the Democratic convention by a group opposed to gay marriage. The issue is a hot button in swing state North Carolina, where a pro-gay marriage initiative was defeated earlier this year.
And just 362 ad occurrences mentioned the Supreme Court, eight aired by Republicans and 354 -- or 98% -- by the Obama campaign.
The makeup of the Court is the most critical personnel decision a President faces beyond choosing a running mate -- and some might argue it's even more important. It's also a base-motivating issue for which there's little room in an air war that 's all about winning over the middle, which is why a preeminent, bipartisan concerns like jobs has been priority number one.