Can you feel it coming / in the air tonight …

Media / journalism, Politics, Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics

The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project “codes and analyzes nearly all of the political advertising that is aired in 2008 federal and gubernatorial races across the country.” Yesterday it released a very interesting report on the two presidential candidates’ advertising in the week of September 28-October 4 (h/t Marc Ambinder). There’s a bunch of goodies in there, data-wise.

$28 million in one week

First of all, there’s the sheer volume of advertising that’s going on. Baffling amounts of money are being spent on equally stunning numbers of ads. In that one week alone, the two campaigns spent over $28 million on TV advertising.

That’s almost twice as much as in the first week of September. It’s also one and a half times as much as “the Bush and Kerry campaigns and their party and interest group allies spent” in the equivalent week of 2004. (Remember the reports back then about the unprecedented role money played in a record-breaking year of campaign spending?)

$28 million in one week. I mean, you could have 28 million young Africans immunised against meningitis for that. Just saying.

The result was that in the Las Vegas media market, Obama ads were aired 1,288 times in one week, and McCain ads 712 times. That’s a lot of ads.

Charting the ads

Secondly, the sheer extent to which Obama is outspending McCain on the airwaves. And the revealing differences in where they spend their money. In this one week, “the Obama campaign spent just under $17.5 million while the McCain campaign and the RNC spent just under $11 million combined.” I’ve graphed it, of course. This is by how much Obama is outspending McCain – and where:

Obama advertisement spending, 9/28 - 10/4

McCain advertisement spending, 9/28-10/4

The Obama and McCain charts both show the proportions spent on different states. But in addition, the size of the “pies” represents the total volume of spending of the two candidates. (For the geeks out there, to determine the chart size I took the square root of the total amount spent by the candidate in thousands of dollars, multiplied that by 2.5, and made that the height of the chart in pixels).

Choices, choices

The striking disbalance in ad spending has serious consequences for the ability of the McCain campaign to effectively focus on more than a handful of states. It spent 18% of its week’s advertising budget, the single largest cut, on Ohio – over one of its every six advertising dollars. But Obama needed to spend just 10.6% of its budget to match that effort toe-to-toe. In the end the Obama campaign devoted 14% of its budget to the state, and so generously outdid McCain’s coverage.

The disbalance is also recent, which was a surprise for me. After reading so much about Obama’s fundraising prowess, I was more or less assuming he’d always already out-advertised his Republican opponent. During the first week of September, “the McCain campaign was either ahead or even” in ad spending in twelve states, including Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada and North Carolina. But during the week of September 28-October 4, the only states where McCain out-advertised Obama were Iowa and Minnesota, while “the Obama campaign [..] outspent the McCain campaign by a margin of over 3 to 1 in Florida, over 2 to 1 in New Hampshire, over 3 to 2 in Nevada, over 8 to 1 in North Carolina, and over 3 to 1 in Virginia.”

Those numbers illustrate contrasting strategic choices. In line with his comparatively smaller resources, McCain concentrated his ad spending in just a handful of states. And he opted for focusing on the Midwest. The week monitored here was the last one McCain advertised in Michigan before he pulled out, but he went out with a bang. Fully half his TV advertising budget was spent on Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

Without much success, it should be added. In the course of the week in question, he went from up 1 to down 2 in Ohio and from down 4.5 to down 9.5 in Pennsylvania. Of course, despite his prime focus on these states he was still generously outspent by Obama in both.

Meanwhile, Obama had enough money to spread his ad spending more broadly as well. Over a third of his advertising bucks went to Southern states: Florida, Virginia, North-Carolina and Missouri. McCain spent less than a sixth of his budget there.

Here’s another telling number: Obama spent two-thirds of his advertisement budget that week on offense, contesting states that went red in ’04. McCain divided his money half-half between offense and defense, and even that may have been reckless, considering how far the blue states he targeted only slipped further out of his reach while Obama was advancing in red states.

Pundits don’t watch the same ads you watch

The enormous, and new, disbalance in advertisement spending is doubtlessly one of the factors pushing Obama’s surge of the past month. And it’s one that’s probably not highlighted enough by the pundits.

Image used under a CC license from Flickr user SideLong

Image used under a CC license from Flickr user SideLong

When poring (or glancing) over the polls, the first thing your typical pundit will do is look for explanations for an up or down in a poll in the political events of the last few days. Was it that gaffe candidate A made? Was it the plan unveiled by candidate B? Those are the things reporters and pundits are paid to monitor closely. But the result is all too often an overestimation of the importance of the “freakshow” events: all the daily to and fros of the campaigns, the press releases, this or that remark caught on tape.

Underestimated, to the chagrin of political scientists, are the fundamentals, the underlying larger currents. Equally underestimated, to the chagrin of statisticians, are the relatively large ups and downs in polls that can result from sheer statistical variation. And underestimated is the role of ad spending.

Not, mind, of ads in themselves: a campaign merely needs to release a TV ad to journalists, without ever having the intention to actually air it broadly (or at all), and it will have the reporters disseminating the substance of the ad for it. Ads as mere video press releases. The more daring or controversial the content, the more they are likely to cover it.

But those are also often the ads voters are actually least likely to see, Lee Sigelman on the Monkey Cage blog observed some two weeks ago:

The most negative ads — the ones the media have devoted the greatest space to — are the ones that the campaigns themselves have aired least often. “The pattern,” as Kurtz puts it, “is that campaigns are putting the least money behind their most slashing spots, the kind that tend to drive news coverage” [..].

He quotes a WaPo article with some striking examples. That spot accusing Obama of supporting sex education for kindergartners? Aired just 43 times in all. The one calling Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” comment an insult to Palin? Never aired on TV. The one accusing McCain with dismissing the wage gap between men and women, much praised in the liberal blogosphere? Aired just twice ever, anywhere.

Image used under a CC license from Flickr user Kevin Steele

Image used under a CC license from Flickr user Kevin Steele

The kicker, added by Sigelman: “None of this [..] is a recent development. The infamous “Daisy” spot in the 1964 campaign aired only once”.

That’s not to say that negative ads aren’t ruling the air. While the most sensational “video releases” didnt make, or hardly made, the airwaves, more run-of-the-mill ones did. McCain’s advertisement operations, for one, was by this week entirely dominated by negative TV ads:

During the week of September 28-October 4, nearly 100 percent of the McCain campaign’s advertisements were negative. During the same period, 34 percent of the Obama campaign’s ads were negative.

And yes, if you had the feeling there were more dirty campaigns than before, you were right:

Comparing this presidential election to 2004, we see that both the McCain and Obama campaigns have aired more negative advertisements than did their counterparts. In all of 2004, 64 percent of the Bush campaign’s ads were negative, while to date, 73 percent of McCain’s ads have been negative. Similarly, 34 percent of all Kerry ads were negative while 61 percent of Obama’s have been.

On ads and McCain’s campaign suspension

Finally, a retrospective note on John McCain’s much-ballyhooed campaign “suspension” two weeks ago. The suspension was widely and justly derided as a gimmick. His campaign surrogates still appeared on TV to bash Obama. McCain soon sold out on the promise to skip the election debate if there was no bill as well. But another gripe was that despite the stated suspension, McCains ads were still on the air.

This, it’s confirmed by the UW report, was true, but only to a limited extent – and you need to keep in mind that not all airings could have just been cancelled on the spot. On the 26th, McCain did indeed go almost wholly off the air, and for three days, at least, the McCain campaign slashed his ads to a third or less than it was.

The question whether that was a smart decision is a different one of course, considering how meaningless the whole stunt ended up being, and how seriously it damaged his standing in the polls.



  1. FreeDuck  •  Oct 10, 2008 @6:17 am

    On less money being spent on the most negative ads — I always assumed that was done because they know that the more outrageous the ad the more it will be replayed by news organizations and on the internet. Free advertising, so to speak.

  2. FreeDuck  •  Oct 10, 2008 @6:19 am

    Almost, forgot: did you see that Obama has bought 30 minutes of prime time from ABC for Oct. 29? I’m thinking he’s got another big national address up his sleeve.

  3. nimh  •  Oct 10, 2008 @6:34 am

    Yep, saw that just now. And not just ABC. NBC and CBS too. Depending on the World Series Fox as well. First time since Perot in ’92 that anyone did so, apparently. Dude!

  4. jes  •  Oct 10, 2008 @8:51 am

    I wanna go visit a swing state. I see no ads here in Mass. unless I look at New Hampshire TV.

    Then again, I should probably count my blessings right about now ….

  5. nimh  •  Oct 10, 2008 @1:03 pm

    What happened with my beautiful pie charts? Those legends werent there before, right? They totally mess up the picture, now state names disappear half off the charts etc..

    EDIT: Okay, I think I’ve gotten rid of them now. Did y’all see legends appear on the charts from the start? I mean a vertical listing of colours + states to the right of the chart, on top of the lines connecting each pie share with the state’s name? And did they half superimpose over the pie chart and half push the chart out so state names didnt appear in full etc?

    Because I swear I checked my post five times when and after I published it and they werent there — and just now suddenly they were there, messing up my charts. Anyway, now they should be gone for good. If there’s any other mess-up like that with my charts etc in the future, warn me, ‘k, post a comment about it?

  6. chijoe999  •  Oct 11, 2008 @5:58 am

    The charts look great. Maybe it’s your browser settings.

1 Trackback