Obama Reacts to Romney’s Risky Late Ad Buys

Romney is throwing long in states thought to be out of his reach. James Warren reports on Team Obama’s reaction—and their ad-buy edge.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

President Obama’s campaign is leaving little to chance as it quickly rebuts Mitt Romney’s surprise, even head-scratching, media buys in at least three states assumed to be Obama wins on Election Day: Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

The traditional tactical faking and feinting of a presidential contest’s final days has been transformed this year by the stunning amounts of money both camps possess. The sort of scarcity-driven tough decisions of old among competing alternatives has been supplanted by both campaigns spending as if they were playing Monopoly with stacks of cash piled to the ceiling.

The Romney camp disclosed its moves into the states earlier in the week, explaining that polls showing single-digit deficits justified an expansion of the electoral playing field. Even some Republican consultants, who aren’t with the Romney campaign, were taken aback, seeing the prospect of victory in the three states as remote.

But the Obama campaign has counterattacked, even as it rolls its eyes.

"I think the reality of this race has closed in on the Romney campaign, that we are even or ahead in every one of the battleground states, including Ohio, so they are taking fliers, desperately looking for an alternative path to 270 (electoral votes),” said David Axelrod, a chief Obama strategist.

For example, by Wednesday evening, the Obama campaign discerned Romney and allied groups dramatically upping their campaign spending in Pennsylvania to what's known as 5,000 GRPs (gross rating points) per TV market—meaning the average voter will see their spots 50 times in the next five days.

The Obama forces answered in kind, perhaps unavoidably. "As a matter of prudence, we have gone into the three states. We are confident about all three, but had put aside contingency funds for just this scenario. We thought they might make a play like this somewhere, and we were prepared to check them wherever they go," Axelrod said.

Mike Murphy, the brainy and acerbic former Republican political consultant, offered this overview of the dynamic at play, which includes the reality that there are no TV spots left to buy in perhaps the two most critical states, Ohio and Virginia:

"So you're sitting there in a close campaign, vomiting out of nervousness, and somebody says, 'Hey, we have an extra $2 million and can't spend it in Ohio and Virginia!' And since nobody's going to give you a bonus for not spending money, and it's dying to be spent, you spend it. You take a look and, even if the polling is a bit sketchy, there's an incentive to throw money at TV and see what happens."

"Meanwhile, the other side puts out a press release saying you're an idiot—and then spends more money," he said.

But while Murphy declares that "there's more money than undecided voters,” he concedes that he probably would have done something similar if making decisions for Romney. “Underneath the math, the white vote is moving toward Romney so even states like Minnesota and Michigan, while still tilting Dem, are getting closer."

Skeptics will wonder how much impact any deluge of end-of-campaign ads might have, especially in a race in which it’s clear most have made up their minds and may be so oversaturated that they grope for the TV clicker whenever they see a political ad at this point. But there is also little doubt that the Obama campaign has proven far more premeditated and adept when it comes to its media buys.

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As in 2008, the Washington firm of Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns buys all the Obama media, as it does for key Democratic Party groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. For Obama’s reelection campaign, the firm bought up what it thought were key, end-of-the race spots in battleground states months before Romney sewed up the Republican nomination.

Thus, in Ohio and Virginia this weekend, Greer Margolis had long ago purchased time on what it deemed the strategically smartest venues, ranging from national shows like 60 Minutes on CBS to key evening and morning newscasts in local markets.

By comparison, the Romney campaign chose to do its TV purchases via a small operation inside the campaign, rather than deal with specialists with long experience in the field.

That decision has puzzled some in the political and TV world, even as Romney’s team defends the move; it’s more efficient and less costly, since it relied it on salaried employees, rather than consultants taking a commission off their buys.

But there’s a definite upside to the Obama camp’s advance purchasing: the Democrats have paid substantially less money for similar spots on similar shows. For example, both campaigns bough a 30-second spot on the ABC station in Cincinnati during the Sept. 23 Emmy Awards, Politico reported. By booking earlier, Obama paid $1,200 for their ad, while Romney’s campaign paid $3,600.

That sort of pricing difference, as well as what appears to be a larger total TV ad purchases by Obama, have given him a greater presence than Romney nationwide.

The late Romney move into seeming safe Obama territories such as Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Michigan will still bump up against the realities of a finite amount of ad “inventory,” as it is known in the TV trade. Those three states are also playing host to state and local campaigns which have booked ample amounts of airtime, further clogging the market.

Asked about the Romney move into Minnesota, the general manager of one Minneapolis station said he’d love to exploit the decision but has no air time left to give.