As campaigns scale back expenses and cut the pay of their staffs, the challenge continues to be how to best use the resources they have left to deliver a knockout punch on Super Tuesday. So now the question becomes, how do campaigns use media to fulfill the ultimate goal of giving that final speech at their party's convention this summer?
To recap the ad wars: So far we have tracked over 160,000 TV spots at an estimated cost of $141 million by candidates and groups. Leading the charge is Mitt Romney's campaign with over 35,000 airings and $30 million worth of TV ads in the early states. Catching up in a hurry are Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, whose campaigns have spent close to $20 million apiece. Issue groups have used TV ads mainly to promote policy agendas such as education, healthcare and retirement security with only a handful of them running TV ads attacking or supporting candidates in the race.
Ad spending began well over a year ago with Duncan Hunter's TV buys in South Carolina, Iowa and his home state, California. Although the dollars spent amount to loose change on a dresser today, it was a starting gun to a race that has morphed into one of the longest and most unpredictable in modern mass-media times.
In my 20-20 hindsight of the ad buys, it is clear the candidates put too much of their hopes and media budgets into the early states, embracing the conventional wisdom that Super Tuesday would be little more than a victory lap for each party's nominee. Following this strategy caused over-spending in Iowa and New Hampshire (close to $80 million) and now leaves the remaining campaigns scrambling for cash and buying TV time day to day, the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck.
In the Democratic race this may be harder to do because of the abundance of proportional delegate states the rest of the way. This means that candidates will need significant wins to rack up the number of delegates necessary to bid farewell to the others in the race. Obama and Clinton are now buying in upward of 10 Super Tuesday states, with Obama supplementing his state-by-state buys with daily national cable TV ads. A year ago, it looked as if the Democrats at this point in the race would be using their ads to target Republicans and not each other, but this is not the case. Those ads may have to wait until the eventual nominee can raise enough money to engage in general-election style tactics.
On the Republican side, the race it is now less about paid media and more about momentum and endurance. Strategically, Rudy Giuliani's campaign has pinned all its hopes and cash on winning Florida, while the John McCain camp continues to use his recent primary wins to fund his next primary campaigns. Both campaigns would love to go back in time and put their squandered campaign funds in an Al Gore lock-box to use at this point in the race. Since last summer's melt down, the McCain camp has been very efficient with its ad schedules, spending heavy on TV in New Hampshire, more than $4.4 million while others in the race waged ad wars on multiple fronts, and then parlaying his success forward one state at a time. The Romney campaign has been buying since February 2007, trying to build up valuable impressions with voters in the early states and has, so far, seen mixed results in election outcomes and national poll numbers.
There is no telling what cards the GOP contenders will have left to play post-Florida, and thus far no one is spending beyond the state except for one candidate. As it turns out, a consultant on the Republican side could take a lesson from none other than Rep. Ron Paul. Paul may have just guessed this race correctly. Paul, who has raised a reported war chest exceeding $20 million, has spent, by our analysis, only around $2.5 million on TV ads thus far. The Paul campaign as of yesterday has begun buying in states such as Texas, which hold primaries after Super Tuesday. Paul could outspend his rivals on TV down the stretch of the GOP races, and the way this campaign has gone, who would really be surprised?
So where do we go from here? My guess, and that's all it is, is we'll start to see the Democrats ramp up the ad spending in big states on Feb. 5, they may even look for creative ways to get the message out such as buying blocks of time, or even national buys on public-affairs-related programming such as the nightly news and "Face the Nation." Look for lots of earned media from the GOP (attention guest bookers for cable shows), remaining ad dollars will likely flow towards must win states on Feb. 5 and/or cable. And yes, prepare for the Paul campaign to unleash the dogs of war in the form of TV buys.
So no Super Bowl -- no problem, Ron Paul was the only one who could afford it anyway.
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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.