As the general-election season kicks off, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be looking to weave competing narratives out of the same set of numbers, analysts say. While crucial undecided voters most likely aren't paying attention yet, the campaigns and their affiliated Super PACS are testing out approaches in key swing states.
Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, should focus on the economy, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"His key will be to make [economic] data sing in short, punchy TV ads," Mr. Sabato said. "Taken together, the ads should simply answer, in the negative, Ronald Reagan's famous question from his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?'"
Mr. Sabato said the president has a tougher task.
"He has to use his ads to convince voters that they are better off, even when they may not feel they are. Selective use of economic data is key," he said. "Obama must stress the positive -- remind viewers of his domestic and foreign-policy accomplishments in his first term."
Mr. Obama should also go negative, Mr. Sabato said, defining Romney as a change for the worse.
Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on TV ads by the candidates and supportive PACs, most of it in about a dozen swing and battleground states where the goal is persuading undecided voters, mostly independents, who will decide the election.
But "at this point both campaigns are using advertising as symbolic messages to reach party loyalists," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "They are trying to advance a narrative."
Based on recent speeches and campaign material, the Obama campaign narrative could be read as: "Stick with me, I saved you from the Bush administration's ruinous economic policies and am winning the war on terrorism because I killed Osama Bin Laden. I will also, unlike my opponent, look out for the 99%."
For the Romney campaign, it's: "I'm the guy who can fix the economy because I'm the true conservative job creator who will make America exceptional again through lower taxes and smaller government. My opponent promised change, but it's been in the wrong direction."
Ads are already running in some swing states, including Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Florida, Virginia, Iowa and North Carolina.
These states often vote Republican in presidential elections but were in Obama's camp in 2008.
Obama may funnel advertising dollars into Arizona because it is home to many Democratic-leaning Latinos. It's thought the state went Republican in 2008 only because the GOP presidential nominee was Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- traditional Democratic states that have become less so -- will also be in play.
An Obama ad called "Swiss Bank Account" running in Iowa, Virginia and Ohio slams Romney for outsourcing jobs as a businessman and governor and says it's "just what you'd expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account."
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, is frantically trying to raise money to counter Mr. Obama's superior fundraising ability. Mr. Romney's campaign has produced plenty of YouTube videos attacking Mr. Obama, but has yet to air a general election ad, leaving that for now to "independent" super PACs, which are expected to dwarf the campaigns in the amount of money spent on advertising.
Americans for Prosperity, a coalition of conservative groups, is running ads attacking Obama in Florida, Nevada, and Virginia, and plans to spend about $100 million on TV advertising before Labor Day.
Meanwhile, the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA has a $1 million buy in Nevada and Colorado.
Tax-exempt advocacy groups that aren't required to disclose their donors, such as Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, are also slowly entering the fray.
Mr. Gonzales, who is also the founder of PoliticsInStereo.com, predicts that "hundreds of millions of dollars" will be spent on the race for the White House this year. But he said the real ad spending will begin later in the summer -- and peak in early fall.
"Swing voters aren't paying attention right now and won't be paying attention until after Labor Day," he said.
Mr. Gonzales also predicts that both campaigns, and especially their allies, will air mostly biting and misleading ads. "The dirty secret about negative ads is that they work," he said.
Not all advertising dollars will be spent on TV.
"By necessity, advertising strategies have become pretty complicated formulas," said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. "The internet has changed things considerably, as has microtargeting. In 2004 ... you saw the Bush campaign rely on radio in some states and very specific cable audiences nationally, like the Golf Channel. I think that you will see a lot more of this."
Ms. Duffy said she expects "some fluidity" in the buying strategies of both campaigns and their Super PAC supporters as they react to "ever-changing events and hot spots."