TOPICS > Politics

Battleground Strategy: Candidates Use Huge Funds to Target Ads to Undecideds

October 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ohio voters greeted visits from Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, who also made stops in Florida and Virginia. Jeffrey Brown reports on the neck-and-neck polls and the money race -- both to earn and to spend. Margaret Warner talks to NPR's Mara Liason about the money the candidates are spending on ads and in swing states.

JEFFREY BROWN: With Election Day less than two weeks away, the race for president looks tighter than ever.

A new Associated Press poll today shows President Obama and Governor Romney in a statistical dead heat. In the meantime, one prominent voter, the president himself, cast his ballot in early voting in Chicago.


JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to showing the president and Mitt Romney running neck and neck nationally, the new poll reveals that, among women, President Obama has lost a 16-point lead he held just one month ago.

The race has tightened among men, too, in the opposite direction, with Romney losing much of his advantage over the president. Still, on November 6, it will be the swing states that most matter, and, today, Romney concentrated once again on Ohio, where 18 electoral votes are up for grabs.

He addressed a raucous crowd in Cincinnati this morning.

MITT ROMNEY (R): You know something’s wrong about the direction we’re headed right now. You know that we don’t want to keep going on the same path we have been on for the last four years. You know we can’t afford four more years like the last four years.

Do you want…


MITT ROMNEY: I mean, do you want real big change in this country?


MITT ROMNEY: Well, you’re going to get it on November 6. And you’re going to make it happen. We’re going to get America on track again.


JEFFREY BROWN: Republicans were also today trumpeting big gains in the money race, with over $111 million raised from October 1 to the 17th. That gives the Romney campaign, the Republican National Committee and state parties $169 million cash on hand.

The Democrats aren’t required to provide their October totals until mid-November.

The president, fresh off an appearance on “The Tonight Show” Wednesday, continued to crisscross the country, with stops in Florida, Virginia, and, yes, Ohio.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You notice my — my voice is getting a little hoarse. But — but I’m just going to keep on — just going to keep on keeping on.  


JEFFREY BROWN: On CBS this morning, he picked up an endorsement from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who bucked his party to vote for the president in 2008.

COLIN POWELL, former U.S. secretary of state: I think this is an exciting race between two very, very capable men. And I signed on for a long patrol with President Obama, and I don’t think this is the time to make such a sudden change.

JEFFREY BROWN: With Powell’s nod, the president campaigned in Tampa, Fla., where he told supporters they have a stark choice.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You can chose the top-down policies that got us into this mess, or you can choose the policies that are getting us out of this mess.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: You can choose a foreign policy that’s reckless and wrong, or you can choose one that’s steady and strong.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: You can choose to turn back the clock 50 years for women and for immigrants and for gays, or, in this election, you can stand up for that basic principle that makes our country the envy of the world, that we’re all created equal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those comments come amid continued fallout over statements about abortion by Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock in a debate Tuesday night.

RICHARD MOURDOCK (R), Indiana senatorial candidate: And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a new ad out today, the Obama campaign attempted to link Romney to Mourdock and to comments made by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.: Well, so, I’m very proud of my pro-life record, and I have always adopted the idea, the position that the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Romney has distanced himself from Mourdock’s remarks, even while continuing to support him. Romney has said he opposes abortion, except in the case of incest, rape and a threat to the life of the mother.

The Romney campaign continued its air war as well, reaching out to Hispanic voters with a Spanish-language ad that accused the president of failing to live up to his promises.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You can’t change Washington from the inside.

JEFFREY BROWN: This evening, the president stopped in his hometown of Chicago and became the first sitting president to participate in early voting. In fact, it appears now that as many as one-third of all American voters will cast their ballots before Election Day.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign announced today that former President Clinton will join President Obama in Florida, Ohio and Virginia next week.

And for more on the money being poured into the presidential contest, we turn to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: If you live in a battleground state, chances are you have already seen the ads we just showed, probably more than once.

Ad spending by the presidential campaigns, the parties and the outside groups supporting them continues to far exceed the pace in 2008. Combined, they have reportedly spent upwards of $900 million on TV ads, much of it in nine battleground states.

According to the ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG, at least $44 million has gone to Iowa, $45 million to Nevada, $101 million in Virginia, and, in Ohio, a whopping $116 million.

The NewsHour is partnering with Kantar Media CMAG and NPR to sort through these numbers.

And we’re joined by Mara Liasson of NPR to look at what the ad spending figures tell us about the shape of the race.

And, Mara, so nice to have you.

MARA LIASSON, NPR: Nice to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do these ad spending numbers if you look at some of the breakdowns tell us about the strategy each camp is pursuing now this close to the election?

MARA LIASSON: Well, what’s interesting about this universe is the battleground of nine states — Wisconsin is the newest addition that came out around June — these states are set in stone.

This is a battleground that’s not going to shrink because of a peculiar aspect of this cycle. In the past, because campaigns had to make tough decisions because they had limited or finite, limited, but finite resources, sometimes, they would leave a state. That’s not going to happen this year.

This battleground is not going to shrink. But what these ads tell us is, at this moment, it’s also not growing. In other words, if the battleground was growing, you would see Republicans buy ads in Michigan or Pennsylvania, and they’re not right now.

MARGARET WARNER: But yet Romney is still going to places like — well, he hasn’t been to Pennsylvania lately. Why that disconnect? Why aren’t they pulling out of a state that they…

MARA LIASSON: Because they don’t have to.

They have so much money. They can afford to play everywhere, even in states like North Carolina, which most people think is beyond the reach of Democrats, or a Nevada, which some people think is soon to be beyond the reach of Republicans. There’s no point. They have so much money. They can play everywhere, at least for the reason of pinning the other guys down.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you look at these numbers, it looks as if the relative strength is almost equal, is that right, if you combine both the parties and the campaigns and the outside groups?

MARA LIASSON: Yes, right now. Previously, through September, the Obama campaign had a little edge, according to the Kantar numbers, because — for a variety of reasons.

They can buy ads at a slightly discounted rate than, for instance, the Republican super PACs, also because the Obama campaign strategy of buying adds was to buy them early. Like, you would buy a plane ticket in advance, you get a cheaper rate.

The Romney campaign strategy is to buy them at the last minute, so you have to pay more. So, up until now, yes, very equal. But the Kantar folks expect that that’s going to change in the last two weeks because Romney has a money advantage, and that could switch to an advantage for him in the final weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what does — what do these numbers tell us about who is being targeted, and has that changed at all for each campaign, what sorts of viewers they are going after?

MARA LIASSON: Well, they’re clearly going after undecided voters. It’s a very small universe. In these state, there’s probably about 800,000 truly undecided, persuadable voters. If you’re spending a billion dollars…

MARGARET WARNER: You mean total?

MARA LIASSON: Total. Total.

If you’re spending a billion dollars on them that means the campaigns are spending $1,000 per persuadable voter. Now, to them, that’s probably a bargain. Sounds like a lot of money. But, for instance, here’s a target group, white male Midwestern voters. That means that you’re seeing ads on college football games in the Midwest. And that is among the most…

MARGARET WARNER: College football.

MARA LIASSON: College football. That’s among the most expensive advertising you can buy, which is on a live sporting event, especially football.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about the undecided women voters we keep hearing about?

MARA LIASSON: Well, they are clearly targeted. Unmarried women voters are a target for the Obama campaign. Married suburban women are a target for the Romney campaign.

And they’re advertising on all of the programs, whether it’s daytime talk, et cetera, that — where they could possibly reach those people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this is probably a dumb question because any of us who’ve seen the ads probably know the answer, but explain the proportion of positive to negative ads.

MARA LIASSON: Oh, well, it’s 7-1 negative.

MARGARET WARNER: Seven-to-one?

MARA LIASSON: And that’s not a surprise to anybody.

Negative ads seem to be the ones that work, and that’s what you’re seeing this year.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you expect, as someone who is out there covering these campaigns, any kind of shift in this pattern? This is — these numbers are pretty fresh up to this week. So you’re looking at the final two weeks.

MARA LIASSON: Well, I expect a shift that Romney would have an advantage in the ad wars at the end.

He’s going to be paying more per spot and maybe because he has so much more money in the end, he can buy more spots. But the Obama campaign has been pretty effective. They have targeted. They have bought early. And they have been able to kind of keep up spot for spot with the Republican super PACs and the RNC and the Romney campaign, who’ve had to generally, generally spend more money per spot.

MARGARET WARNER: And you don’t expect anybody to pull — either campaign to pull out of any of these states?

MARA LIASSON: I don’t see why they have to. They both have plenty of money to play in these states until the end.

What I would watch for is if that ad battleground expands. Do the Republicans see an opportunity where it’s worth pouring money into Michigan or Pennsylvania? That’s what I would be watching for.

MARGARET WARNER: That will tell us something.

Well, Mara Liasson, NPR, thank you.

MARA LIASSON: Thank you.