By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Barack Obama, in accepting his party’s nomination for a second term as president, commiserated with the viewers he reached on television screens throughout the nation:
“I know that campaigns can seem small, and even silly,” he reflected. “Trivial things become big distractions. Serious issues become sound bites. The truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising. And if you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I.”
But, as it turns out, only a portion of Obama’s audience is likely to hear him approve commercial messages in the race for president, even though his campaign is poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on them. That’s because the ad tsunami that is already spilling into living rooms across the nation is likely to miss many media markets.
The Washington Post’s ad tracker shows that $450 million has already been spent on ads in the presidential race, through Sept. 9. And that’s not even all of it. The tracker includes just ads run in local markets and national cable buys, not so-called spot cable ads, purchased locally, figured at around 20 percent of total spending.
Despite these astonishing overall sums, the site shows that zero dollars have been spent on ads in Obama-loving California and only nominal amounts in several other states.
Collectively, the campaigns of Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney and their affiliated parties have spent more than $250 million on ads, the tracker shows. But they’ve managed to do so without spending a dime on television markets in more than half the states — those considered either safely Democratic or safely Republican.
The five exclusively Wisconsin television markets, the tracker shows, have aired $6.1 million in presidential ads, more than half in Milwaukee and Madison. The candidates and their parties accounted for just $1.4 million of this, less than the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future ($1.9 million) and the Koch brothers-affiliated conservative group, Americans for Prosperity ($1.8 million). Pro-Romney spending has dominated so far.
But Wisconsin looks like an electoral thrift store compared to the battleground states like Ohio, whose six television markets have collectively aired $66 million in presidential advertising — so far. Even given that Ohio is a more populous state with 18 electoral votes to Wisconsin’s 10, that’s a huge disparity.
It’s been suggested that Wisconsin will see a similar ad-buying binge, now that Romney’s selection of Janesville Republican Rep. Paul Ryan has prompted news sources including CNN to change Wisconsin’s classification from “lean Obama” to “toss up.”
Ken Goldstein isn’t so sure. The University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor now serves as president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, an offshoot of a company called Kantar Media that collects the ad-buy numbers used by the Washington Post and others. He says Wisconsin’s status as a toss-up state cannot be determined by the likes of CNN and the New York Times. What really matters is how many ads get aired.
“Advertising is the ultimate test,” says Goldstein, who expects total spending on the presidential race to top $1 billion. “If the state is in play, you’re going to see the advertising.”
As he sees it, Wisconsin’s status is still up in the air. “Wisconsin is just now starting to get some advertising buys from the campaigns,” he says. “We’ll see if the state becomes fully engaged like an Ohio, Virginia or Florida.”
Goldstein says a state on the margin may be targeted with ad buys “to make it more competitive and see if they can soften it up.” But, he adds, “campaigns typically don’t try to cause competitiveness. They’re more likely to follow competitiveness.”
In other words, if Wisconsin really does become a battleground state, expect your television to become a war zone.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.