2012 US political ad spend shatters 2004 and 2008 records

Michelle Clancy | 29-10-2012

More than 915,000 presidential ads have been aired on broadcast and national cable television since 1 June, representing a full 44.5% increase from the 637,000 ads aired in the same period in 2008 and a 43.7% increase from the 634,000 ads aired in 2004, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Republicans outspent the Democrats, but Obama has claimed more overall airtime.

The GOP is spending more than Team Obama: In just the past three weeks, pro-Romney groups have spent more than $47 million on television advertising. This translates into a $10 million advantage in ad spending by all Republican sponsors over all Democratic sponsors during the past three weeks.

"When all is said and done, 2012 will go down as a record pulverising year for political advertising," said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "We've already surpassed the total number of presidential ads aired during the entire 2008 campaign—and we still have two weeks to go before Election Day. What is especially striking is that the ads are concentrated on fewer markets than 2008, meaning that a smaller number of Americans have witnessed the onslaught of messages in the race for the White House."

When it comes to markets, the picture coalesces around a few spending hotspots in swing states: Las Vegas, Denver and Cleveland have been the epicenters of presidential advertising this year. The analysis also reveals that a large portion of the country has seen very few broadcast television ads (other than a few ads aired on national cable), so the geography of ad targeting has changed since 2008. And in fact, several markets in Missouri, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota dropped off the map this year. Ad volumes in Michigan and Minnesota have declined, while advertising has increased in contended states such as Nevada, Colorado, Ohio and Virginia.

Another big change since 2008 involves the sponsorship of the advertising. In the first three weeks of October, Democratic-leaning groups are estimated to have spent 438% more on advertising than they did four years ago, and Republican-leaning groups have increased their spending by 954%.

Of particular note is the shift in sponsorship from 2008 to 2012 on the Republican side. In 2008, the Republican National Committee (alone or in coordination with nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)) sponsored about 85% of the pro-McCain ads during the first three weeks of October. The McCain campaign alone only sponsored about 9% of the ads aired on his behalf. In 2012, the Republican Party accounted for 12% of the Romney ads, while outside groups sponsored 44%.

In spite of the Republican's spending advantage, Obama and his interest group allies have maintained an advantage in the number of ads aired. More than 112,000 pro-Obama ads aired in the last three weeks compared to 97,000 for Romney.
"There was a lot of talk that Romney and his allies were hoarding resources for a major ad push in the closing moments of the campaign," said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "This was supposed to counteract the Obama advantage in ads aired throughout the earlier part of the general election campaign. We just haven't seen that to date on local broadcast," added Franz. "And time is running out."

In fact, pro-Obama ads have lately greatly outnumbered pro-Romney ads in several markets, including Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, Washington, D.C., and Reno. The only markets in the top 15 in which Republican ads outnumber Democratic ads are Columbus, Ohio, and Norfolk, Va.—and Romney's advantage in those markets is slight.

"One reason Obama has been able to win the air war in most media markets is that his campaign is funding most of its own advertising, which entitles his campaign to the lowest rate charged by local television stations," said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "By contrast, many ads supporting Romney are paid for by outside groups, which must pay whatever the market will bear to get their ads on the air."