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Political Ad Spending Doubled in 2012, More Drastically in Battleground States

September 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Political ad spending has doubled overall, but in critical battleground states the numbers are more drastic. In 2008, 519 presidential campaign ads aired in Colorado Springs, Colo. Four years later, the number has jumped to 1,445. Gwen Ifill talks to NPR's Ari Shapiro about the blitz of campaign ads in a Republican leaning city.
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GWEN IFILL: The presidential candidates looked to score points today on jobs, taxes, and foreign policy issues, with their first of three debates looming next week.

President Obama was off the campaign trail today, traveling to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, while Mitt Romney was on the stump for a second day in Colorado.

MITT ROMNEY (R): What a Pueblo, Colo., welcome. Thank you so much.

GWEN IFILL: Romney kicks off a bus tour in Ohio tomorrow, where he will be greeted by a new Obama television ad.

NARRATOR: Mitt Romney attacked 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax, including veterans, elderly, the disabled.

GWEN IFILL: But the Romney camp is also on the offensive…

NARRATOR: Fewer Americans are working today than when President Obama took office. It doesn’t have to be this way, if Obama would stand up to China.

GWEN IFILL: … with its own TV ad charging Obama is weak on trade against China.

Over the weekend, both candidates used dueling interviews on CBS’ “60 Minutes” to make their case. Romney was pressed to provide specifics on economic policy.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I can tell them specifically what my policy looks like. I will not raise taxes on middle-income folks.

I will not lower the share of taxes paid by high-income individuals. And I will make sure that we bring down rates, we limit deductions and exemptions, so we can keep the progressivity in the code, and we encourage growth in jobs.

SCOTT PELLEY: And the devil is in the details, though. What are we talking about? The mortgage deduction? The charitable deduction?

MITT ROMNEY: The devil is in the details. The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.

SCOTT PELLEY: You have heard the criticism, I’m sure, that your campaign can be vague about some things. And I wonder if this isn’t precisely one of those things.

MITT ROMNEY: It’s very much consistent with my experience as a governor, which is if you want to work together with people across the aisle, you lay out your principles and your policy. You work together with them, but you don’t hand them a complete document and say, here, take this or leave it. Look, leadership is not a take-it-or-leave-it thing. We have seen too much of that in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: The president was asked how he could solve economic problems in a second term that he could not get Congress to agree to in his first.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I take full responsibility for everything that we do, Steve.

And the fact of the matter is, is that what we have done has been effective in improving the situation in every area that we’re talking about. You know, when I made a decision to save the auto industry, that saved a million jobs. One in eight jobs in Ohio is dependent on the auto industry. So, we have actually seen success.

STEVE KROFT, CBS: How are you going to get the Republicans to agree to a tax increase for the top 2 percent? You have been trying for a year. You haven’t been able to do it. And you have got a majority of Republicans in Congress, including Gov. Romney, who have signed a pledge never to increase taxes under any circumstances.

BARACK OBAMA: Yes, well, we…

STEVE KROFT: How are you going to get them to change their minds and make this deal?

BARACK OBAMA: I won’t get them to make them change their minds. The American people will.

GWEN IFILL: The interviews offered a preview of the arguments each candidate will make when they meet in the first of three presidential debates now just eight days away.

For now, the fight to persuade wavering voters is happening on the air. Nationally, political ad spending is double what it was four years ago. At this point in 2008, general election ad spending totaled $183 million. For the same time period this year, the number is $395 million.

The jump in spending is even more drastic in critical battleground states, like New Hampshire, where candidates are spending 223 percent more than they did in 2008. In North Carolina, it’s 195 percent more, in Virginia, 143 percent. And, in Colorado, ad spending has jumped by 146 percent.

And there’s more. In seven days, from Sept. 13 to Sept. 19, the Romney campaign spent $425,000 in battleground Colorado on 1,283 ads. The Obama campaign spent $1.1 million on 2,891 ads. That’s statewide.

Narrow the focus to one city, Colorado Springs, and the change is even more dramatic. At this time four years ago, 519 presidential campaign ads had aired in that market. This year, the number jumped to 1,445.

The NewsHour is partnering with Kantar Media, CMAG and NPR to keep track of all that spending.

NPR reporter Ari Shapiro spent the past week in Colorado Springs watching those television ads and talking to the voters who consume them.

He joins us now.

Three hundred and ninety-five million dollars, let’s start with that number, Ari. What is that all being spent on, really?

ARI SHAPIRO, NPR: Well, TV stations have a limited number of minutes for advertising.

And, so, you are seeing more ads per hour and you’re seeing ads in different shows where you didn’t used to, you know, game shows, soap operas, reality TV programming, where you used to really only see the ads in the news programs.

But you’re also just seeing the rates for the ads go up and up and up because the real estate is limited.

And because there’s a smaller number of swing states in play, more money from both the campaigns and the outside groups is being concentrated into a much smaller area.

GWEN IFILL: How does Colorado Springs become a target in a war like this?

ARI SHAPIRO: You know, in Colorado Springs, Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

ARI SHAPIRO: This is a city where Barack Obama lost by 19 points to John McCain.

But whether you carry a swing state or not depends on more than whether you carry a town or not. It’s cheaper to advertise in Colorado Springs than it is in a place by Denver. And losing by five fewer points in Colorado Springs is as useful to Barack Obama as winning by five more points in Denver.

GWEN IFILL: So, you’re spending time on the ground in Colorado Springs. You’re watching — you’re taking the — like water from a fire hose, you’re taking the intake here. What do voters who live there who are getting this kind of assault, what do they say?

ARI SHAPIRO: They hate it.

I spoke to a Romney volunteer who phone-banks. And he has made more than 300 calls. And he said he’s more than happy to call somebody’s home during their dinner hour and ask them to vote for Mitt Romney, but he’s driven nuts by these ads. He can’t stand watching them.

The thing is, the ads are not designed for him. You know, something close to 95 percent of voters have made up their minds. The ads are designed for the 5 percent or so of voters who are still undecided.

And if you can get all but 5 percent of people to throw their remote control at the TV screen and the 5 percent pay attention and you win them over, well, then that may be worth the millions of dollars these campaigns are spending.

GWEN IFILL: But doesn’t it matter whether these ads are positive or negative ads? What are we talking about here?

ARI SHAPIRO: In Colorado Springs last week, there were 1,500 ads broadcast. And out of those 1,500 ads, according to Kantar Media and CMAG, 50 were positive.

GWEN IFILL: That’s it?

ARI SHAPIRO: Three percent of the ads were positive. All the rest were negative.

GWEN IFILL: So, underlying all of this, this negative ad strategy, quantity ad strategy, this expensive ad strategy, what are the messages, say, that the Romney campaign is trying to communicate?

ARI SHAPIRO: What is interesting is that there are really different strategies between the Romney and Obama campaign.

Mitt Romney campaign is using a really broad “I will create jobs, I will fix the economy” message, whereas the Obama campaign is using much more targeted: Here’s my message to women, here’s my message to Latinos, to seniors, to veterans, to students and so on.

As a result of that, we see a lot more Obama advertising on cable channels, because they tend to be more targeted to a specific audience, whether it’s Lifetime for women, Univision for Latinos, or Spike TV for young men.

GWEN IFILL: So, in a market like Colorado Springs and in a state like Colorado, when you watch these ads, who is being targeted the most? Is it a gender — are they trying to exploit the gender gap, Latino vote?

ARI SHAPIRO: The Democrats are really trying to hard to exploit the gender gap.

In 2010, Democrats won the Senate seat in Colorado just barely by getting the widest gender gap of any Senate race in the country.

So, they’re trying to do the same thing in Colorado in 2012. But you also do see an appeal to veterans, an appeal to seniors, an appeal to Latinos and so on.

GWEN IFILL: And Colorado Springs is also a military town.

ARI SHAPIRO: Big military town. The Air Force Academy is there. Yes.

GWEN IFILL: So that also is part of what the targeting is about.

So, assuming that you spent time on the ground talking to actual people, the elusive undecided voters, did you find any?

ARI SHAPIRO: I did.

And what was interesting was this one woman in particular who I spoke to said she was a small business owner and a woman. And she said she was an Obama ’08 voter.

This time, she’s undecided. And she spoke to exactly what the campaigns are saying in these ads.

She said, as a small business owner, I feel like the Democrats want to get all up in my business. And as a woman, I feel like the Republicans want to get all up in my business.

And so she couldn’t make up her mind. And clearly the message of the Democrats, speaking to her as a woman, and the message of the Republicans, speaking to her as a small business owner in this economy, were both resonating with her. And she couldn’t decide who to go with.

GWEN IFILL: You know, I sometimes wonder at this point in the campaign whether people who say they’re undecided are going to vote at all. Did you get the sense that people who said they hadn’t made up their minds yet were really going to show up?

ARI SHAPIRO: People in Colorado are very engaged. And even if they hate the ads and even if they are overwhelmed by the negativity of this and turned off, I got the sense that people appreciate how important this is.

And at least the ones I talked to all sounded as though they were going to show up and go to the polls.

GWEN IFILL: They just can’t wait for it to end.

(LAUGHTER)

ARI SHAPIRO: Exactly.

GWEN IFILL: Ari Shapiro from NPR, thank you so much.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you.

GWEN IFILL: You can find a behind-the-scenes look at Ari’s reporting, more interviews with voters, and take a look at the ads on our website.