All Those Dollars And No Sense

Fun fact to know and tell: According to the Associated Press, through the end of August Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the various independent groups supporting him had spent $245 million on advertising. Barack Obama’s campaign and its allies had spent $188 million on ads.

To say that the presidential candidates are spending like drunken sailors is, well, an insult to drunken sailors. But that’s their lookout.

The unprecedented level of spending in the 2012 presidential race raises two big questions.

Why so much?

And why so early?

The easy answer to the former question is: because they have it. The reality, though, is more complicated than that.

The consensus among the chin-strokerati is that the 2012 presidential race is a turnout election, which means the base of each party needs to be “Fired up and ready to go” as candidate Obama liked to say in 2008.

The Romney campaign has essentially conceded the point, as BuzzFeed reported this week:

Mitt Romney’s campaign has concluded that the 2012 election will not be decided by elusive, much-targeted undecided voters — but by the motivated partisans of the Republican base.

This shifting campaign calculus has produced a split in Romney’s message. His talk show interviews and big ad buys continue to offer a straightforward economic focus aimed at traditional undecided voters. But out stumping day to day is a candidate who wants to talk about patriotism and God, and who is increasingly looking to connect with the right’s intense, personal dislike for President Barack Obama.

That means the Romney campaign needs to maintain a steady drumbeat of ads like this one, designed to keep the faithful in high dudgeon:


But despite what the Romney forces say publicly, the tsunami of TV spots is also aimed in part at the remarkably small segment of undecided voters in this year’s election. By one estimate (via Time’s Mark Halperin), “Almost 9 in 10 Obama and Romney Supporters are Certain about Their Vote: 86% of Obama’s supporters say they are certain to vote for him and 85% of Romney voters are certain of their support.”

Regardless, that leaves maybe 2% of voters up for grabs – a miniscule slice of America, but one that could still conceivably decide the election.

Or not.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Polls indicate 98% of Americans have made up their minds about the choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney. That makes the 2 percent who are still thinking it over (or failing to think about it at all) a prime focus of attention for both campaigns and for the media and pollsters who are following the race for the White House.

In reality, though, it is not even 2 percent of voters who are getting the attention, it is a much smaller subset of that small electoral sliver: undecided voters in the eight states that are still not solidly in one camp or the other. There are actually so few voters in play that all the tens of millions of dollars being spent on attack ads might be better spent by simply paying each one of these vacillating voters for their vote. Maybe $50,000 each would do the trick.

Works for us.

But the campaigns won’t get off that cheap. They’ll continue to carpet-bomb voters in swing states right up to the bitter end.

Which bring us back to our other question: Why so many ads so early?

One possible answer comes from Michael Crowley in the current issue of Time magazine (boink! sorry, paywall).

Campaign sources think more than one-third of the electorate will vote early — as much as 36% of voters, compared with 31% in 2008 — which is another reason the campaigns are blasting televisions about as hard in September as they will in October. “This is not 1980,” says [Obama campaign manager Jim] Messina, referring to Ronald Reagan’s late come-from-behind victory. “By the third debate, a majority of people in Colorado and Florida will have voted.”

Regardless, the profligate ad spending will likely continue right up to Election Day. Some, like Scott Conroy of Real Clear Politics, wonder “Will Ad Fatigue Mute GOP’s Late Cash Edge?”

[W]ith so much money targeting relatively few voters in key swing states, there is growing concern among Republicans that the advantage Romney is expected to have when those voters historically tune into the race may not be so significant after all. In other words, will the undecided simply tune out the increasingly inescapable noise from the late campaign ad barrage?

The undecideds might well tune out. But rest assured – the campaigns will decidedly not drop out.


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1 Response to All Those Dollars And No Sense

  1. Another reason is that the GOP submarined both Gore and Kerry with surprise August attacks, and the Obama campaign learned the lesson and attacked preemptively, with attack ads in July.

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