Has Political Ad Spending Hit a Ceiling? Sorry, But No

Despite Record Totals in Some States, There Is Inventory to Be Had

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Young girl was driven to tears by political saturation.
Young girl was driven to tears by political saturation.

Some $6 billion is estimated to have been spent on 2012 election advertising across all media, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's actually less than the auto industry spends on TV advertising in a year, but it's more than enough to make a 4-year-old girl in Colorado cry out of frustration. Given the inundation of media markets in swing states, is it conceivable that political ad spending has hit a ceiling?

According to Kantar Media estimates, $1.1 billion was spent on local TV in 12 states for the presidential race alone, plus another $200 million for local cable. It's not only a lot of money, it's also a lot of inventory -- of which there is only so much. Time Warner Cable, for example, noted during earnings this week that it had carved additional ad inventory out of the time it normally reserves to promote programming to serve demand by political advertisers.

But even if all inventory were maxed out, that doesn't mean spending won't continue to climb.

More money could be spent on TV ads for presidential candidates in 2016 if rates paid by Super PACs such as Restore Our Future and 501(c)(4)s like Americans for Prosperity soar higher, according to Elizabeth Wilner, VP at Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. Those independent groups were sometimes paying tens of thousands of dollars more than campaigns -- which are legally guaranteed the lowest available rate for the air time they're seeking -- for a 30-second spot.

"The station's going to charge that group as much as it dares," Ms. Wilner said. "[But] there's a question of how much higher it could possibly go."

While Ohio and Nevada were quite possibly fully saturated with political advertising in 2012 as battleground states in the presidential race with extremely competitive Senate races, other swing states aren't totally maxed out, Ms. Wilner said. For example, Pennsylvania had been deemed secure for President Barack Obama until the Romney campaign made a late push there with an accompanying ad blitz. And Missouri, which went for Mitt Romney last night, didn't see any local TV spending this year, though it's normally considered a battleground state.

One last conceivable way for ad spending to climb in 2016 is if candidates decide to start bombarding the airwaves even earlier than they did this year. Columbus, Ohio, residents saw three times as many presidential ads this summer than they did four years ago, largely because of the Obama campaign's decision to start advertising heavily in Ohio early to get a head-start on defining Mr. Romney for voters on its terms, Ms. Wilner said. Given that significant presidential ad spending began this cycle about seven months ago, Mr. Wilner is skeptical that the electorate could stomach an even more sustained helping of political ads.

"I don't know if the country would tolerate that ," she said.

It might seem to swing-state residents that they couldn't possibly hear from presidential candidates more. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recently posted on Facebook, "My parents, who live in Florida, estimate that they heard from one of the two presidential campaigns via email or phone about twice an hour today. The joys of living in a swing state."

And with so much clutter, the question has to be raised: Is this a wise or efficient use of money? Could campaigns actually scale back?

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says there's no reason to think political spending won't continue ratcheting ever upward, regardless of whether ad blitzes are actually effective in persuading unpredictable swing voters.

"[Get-out-the-vote] and voter contact are the way to go in the future. They deserve more of the war chest and TV less," Mr. Sabato said in an email. "But I would bet that campaigns won't do that . They'll air just as much TV, if not more, and then raise even more money to add on another layer of voter contact. This is what happens every two years, and it is why the spiral of campaign costs reaches ever higher."

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