President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney and their allies so far have spent a jaw-dropping $87 million on TV ads in just a handful of presidential battleground states, an early and unprecedented explosion of spending for a general election still a full five months away.
The avalanche of ad dollars is larger in size and scope at this point that in any previous campaign, fueled by the closeness of the race, a proliferation of deep-pocketed independent groups and an eagerness on both sides to frame the debate before summer when voters pay little attention.
"The presidential race has been surprising to us _ the amount of it and the early entry," said Mike Lake, sales director for KCRG-TV, the largest station in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "But this is just the tip of the iceberg."
Viewers in that metro area of 260,000 people have each been subject to about 330 ads already, according to the Iowa-based media firm Strategic America, and the largely rural state has already seen $6 million in presidential campaign advertising since late April, with four of its metropolitan areas ranking in the top 20 for spending nationwide.
Television ads are just one component of a presidential campaign's multimillion-dollar effort to woo voters; the Romney and Obama teams will also spend heavily on tools from digital targeting to field operations to direct mail. But the emergence of independent groups known as super political action committees has significantly crowded the airwaves, thanks to a trio of federal court decisions including Citizens United that loosened campaign finance restrictions, allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to spend freely on political ads of their own.
The crush of spending indicates that TV ads still remain a powerful tool for campaigns even at a time when fewer Americans are watching broadcast TV in real time given technological advances.
The targets have been limited.
Most commercials the campaigns and super PACs are running are only airing in nine states, offering a window into the places both sides believe will decide the outcome of the election. They are: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire. Combined, these states offer 120 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win the White House.
"There hasn't been a gentle ramp-up this year _ it's gone from zero to 60 very quickly," said Ken Goldstein of Kantar-Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political spending. "It's also much more concentrated than we've seen it, and independent groups are playing a bigger role."
The Obama campaign started running general election ads in late March, while the Republican nominating contest was still under way. Romney began spending on general election ads in April, after his remaining GOP rivals dropped out and the former Massachusetts governor became the party's all-but-certain nominee. At least one independent group backing him went on the air in March with commercials intended to help him.
The 2008 general election ad spending, by contrast, didn't begin until late June, when Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination against rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and shifted focus to Republican John McCain.
The Obama campaign has been the largest single advertiser so far this time, pouring nearly $31 million into campaign commercials so far compared to just over $5 million spent by Romney's campaign, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based SMG-Delta firm, which monitors campaign ads.
Conservative-leaning independent groups have more than made up the difference, spending $42 million so far on ads to defeat Obama. Of that, Crossroads GPS, the independent group affiliated with President George W. Bush's longtime political director, Karl Rove, was responsible for $29 million of that alone.
The ads from Crossroads GPS and other conservative independent groups have been highly negative, attacking Obama on matters from high gas prices to comments made by comedian Bill Maher and other Obama supporters about Romney's wife, Ann. Those efforts have allowed Romney to remain largely positive, running ads describing the steps he'd take on the first day of his presidency to revive the economy.
Obama has received much less help from independent groups favoring his candidacy.
Priorities USA Action, a super PAC formed by two former Obama White House staffers, has spent just over $7 million on ads so far, while Planned Parenthood has spent $1.2 million.
Without the same level of cover afforded to Romney by independent groups, the Obama campaign has to balance running a mix of positive and negative ads.
The Obama campaign is advertising in all nine states. While it has spent more money on populous Florida than any other state, its heaviest ad buys relative to population have been in Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa.
The Romney campaign has been on the air in just five states so far: Ohio Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, and New Hampshire. But Crossroads GPS has aired ads on Romney's behalf in the same nine states where Obama is advertising, as is Restore Our Future, a super PAC run by former Romney advisers.
All told, the top 10 advertising markets for the campaigns and super PACs are Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News, Va.; Roanoke and Lynchburg, Va.; Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem, N.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Richmond-Petersburg, Va., Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati; and Des Moines, Iowa.
All are in states Obama won in 2008 but where the contest is tight this year.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.
Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy
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