The total cost of election 2012 could reach as high as $6 billion, obliterating the previous record. A good chunk of that money was spent on TV.
On the airways, TV spending on the presidential contest reached close to $1 billion. According to a spending tally from SMG-Delta, the final TV ad spend total between the campaigns of President Obama, Mitt Romney and the outside groups supporting them was $984 million. The bulk of that presidential TV spending came in just three states—Ohio, Florida and Virginia. Ohio saw $197 million of spending while Florida saw $191 million and Virginia saw $151 million. The spending also ran for a record 31 weeks, beginning in April of 2012. So what did we learn from all of that spending? Sheer volume still matters, according to media strategists, and that was a battle the president won. “A race like this is typically a referendum on the incumbent,” says Jim McLaughlin, a Republican media buyer and pollster. “But through the sheer amount of spending and weight of messaging, the Obama campaign successfully made it a choice between the two candidates.” When the campaigns are stacked up against their own support structures, Republican issue groups outspent the Romney campaign on ad buys by $211.5 million. President Obama’s campaign outspent all Democratic issue groups by $335 million. In all, Romney was backed with spending by 11 major Super PACs. Obama’s campaign was backed up by just three major Super PACs. One of the bigger problems for Romney and the Super PACs supporting him throughout the cycle—the fact that ad space was costing issue groups significantly more than it was costing campaigns. So while conservative outside groups were able to help the Romney campaign close the TV spending gap, they couldn’t keep pace as easily with Obama’s point totals in swing states. “The Obama campaign had much tighter targeting and smarter media planning than the Romney campaign,” says Democratic media strategist John Rowley. “There were definitely instances where Obama got dramatically cheaper time slots because he bought months in advance.” McLaughlin compared Obama’s 2012 ad strategy to Bill Clinton’s in 1996. Obama got on air early and often—outspending Republicans 3-to-1 on TV in swing states. Ohio, Florida and Virginia were his early targets. Romney’s first general election ad buy came on May 14—$1.3 million spent on broadcast in Ohio, Virginia and Iowa. By that point, the Obama campaign had already spent $28.8 million on TV. “I think there’s no question the way the media was placed did things to suppress Republican turnout while energizing Democrats,” says McLaughlin. “Romney had no presence up any time in spring or really over the summer.”
One big takeaway from this cycle’s ad spending battle: Don’t rely on Super PACs to keep pace with your opponent in the air war. “I would imagine there were far more audibles coming out of Romney-land,” Rowley says of the final stretch of the presidential campaign. “When you look at where the [Obama campaign’s] expectations were and where they finished on Election Day, there’s not really a state where they underperformed.”