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Visual Breakdown of the $980 Million Spent on Presidential Ads

Posted by on Nov 30, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

Over $980 million was spent on television and radio advertising during the 2012 Presidential General Election.  When the ad spending from the GOP Primary is included, this total surpasses $1 billion spent on television and radio advertising.  Political ads dominated the airwaves in the battleground states throughout the election.  Who paid for all of those ads?

Of the $980 Million Total Spent: Candidates (56%) vs.  Issue Groups (44%)


Not surprisingly, the two advertisers who spent the most money on political ads were the two candidates themselves: Barack Obama was the biggest spender at $335 million and Mitt Romney was the second biggest spender at $213 million.  Between the two of them, the candidates spent $548 million on ads – but that only counts for a little over half (56%) of the total amount spent on presidential-related ads this election cycle.  The remaining 44% (another $434 million) was spent on behalf of the candidates by 23 different Super PACs and issue groups.

Of the $980 Million Total Spent: Team Romney (60%) vs. Team Obama (40%)

Sixty percent of the money spent on presidential ads came from Pro-Romney advertisers ($583 million) and 40% of the money spent on ads came from pro-Obama advertisers ($400 million).

The majority (63%) of Team Romney’s ad spend came from issue groups who spent $370 million on behalf of Romney, while the candidate spent $213 million (37%).

On the other hand, the majority (84%) of Team Obama’s buy came from the candidate himself ($335 million), while issue groups only made up 16% of Team Obama’s spend ($64 million).

Of Team Romney’s $583 Million: Issue Group (63%) vs. Candidate (37%)

There were 12 major issue groups that placed ads on behalf of Mitt Romney during the election.

Who won the ad war?

Team Romney outspent Team Obama in terms of pure dollars.  This is largely due to the multiple issue groups that advertised on behalf of Romney.  But in political advertising, more money does not always equal more ads reaching more voters.

While issue groups indisputably played a significant role in Presidential advertising this election, it is important to consider the difference between the worth of a candidate’s media buy in comparison to the worth of an issue group’s media buy.   Federal Communications Commission law guarantees candidates the best prices for purchasing ad time, but these laws do not apply to political issue groups.  This means that issue groups often end up paying double, triple or even quadruple the market rate that candidates pay for the same advertisement.  This ratio varies across different markets and time periods, and many issue groups successfully negotiate competitive rates, but these advertisers do not receive the same price protection that political candidates enjoy.  Candidates can reach voters at a lower price.

Even though Team Romney outspent Team Obama by $183 million, does that mean that Team Romney won the ad war?  After all, the majority (63%) of Team Romney’s media buy came from political issue groups (who most likely paid higher rates), while the majority (84%) of Team Obama’s total spend came from the candidate (who most likely paid lower rates).  There are several major factors to consider when approaching this question.

  1. Where? Throughout the election, candidates and issue groups alike advertised in eight different swing states (CO, IA, FL, NC, NH, NV, OH, VA), give or take a few (MI, MN, PA, WI).  Were there certain states where Obama outspent Romney?  In what markets was Romney stronger than Obama?  The ad war question must be asked on a state-by-state, market-by-market basis.
  2. At what time? Advertising for the general election began the week of April 2 (when Rick Santorum dropped out) and lasted for thirty-one weeks, until November 6.  Were there certain periods of time when Obama dominated the airwaves?  How did the GOP spending surge in the last nine days of the election affect the outcome?  The ad war question must be framed in terms of time as well.
  3. On what mediums? Broadcast, cable and radio are the three media types that political candidates traditionally place on.  Who had the most sophisticated cable buy?  When did the candidates start advertising on radio? What were the most crowded broadcast markets?
  4. At what price? Perhaps the biggest question that must be asked when determining which campaign was the most effective buy is one of cost.  Were the some markets where issue groups got better rates?  Which markets skyrocketed?  What price did each campaign pay for advertisements?

In the next few weeks, I will be exploring these questions through more in-depth posts on each subject.

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