Obama’s ‘Convention Bounce’ May Actually be an Ad Bounce

Pro-Obama Advertisers Had Over 2 to 1 Advantage in Last Two Weeks; Romney Heavily Reliant on Outside Groups; Negative Ads Up Sharply from 2008

(MIDDLETOWN, CT) – Although the Romney campaign has (until recently) dominated the money race, the Obama campaign dominated the broadcast airwaves in the two weeks during the presidential conventions.

As Table 1 shows, during the August 26 to September 8 period, Obama and his allies aired 40,000 ads on broadcast and national cable television, the vast majority of which were paid for by the Obama campaign.  By comparison, Romney and his allies aired roughly 18,000 ads on broadcast and national cable television during that same time period.

Table 1. Ad Airings by Sponsor in Past Two Weeks

“In the past couple of weeks, pro-Obama advertising has outpaced pro-Romney advertising by more than a two to one margin,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.  “During both the Democratic and Republican conventions, ads favoring Obama dominated the airwaves in numerous markets, including key swing states such as Colorado, Ohio, Nevada, and Virginia.  This advantage may help to explain why Obama’s ‘convention bounce’ was larger than Romney’s.”

Since April 25, the date Romney effectively secured the Republican nomination, however, the ad war has been close, with Romney, the RNC, pro-Romney and anti-Obama groups airing about 303,000 ads compared with 315,000 ads from the Obama campaign, the DNC, and other pro-Obama and anti-Romney groups.

“The notion that Romney’s money advantage will lead to his domination of the airwaves has just not been borne out—at least not yet,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.  “However, Romney is now free to use all the general election money that he has raised since securing the nomination,” Franz added.  “And he and the Republican Party have generally fund-raised more than Obama and the Democrats.”

Interest Groups Heavily Involved in 2012 Race

“Another important trend in the spending figures is just how heavily reliant Romney has been on outside groups, including his SuperPAC, Restore Our Future, to keep him competitive with Obama,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.  “More than half of all pro-Romney spots have been sponsored by outside groups during the general election season.” In just the last two weeks, for example, Americans for Prosperity, American Crossroads, and Restore Our Future have aired nearly 13,000 ads on local broadcast and national cable stations.  The Romney campaign, by comparison, has sponsored about one-third of that total.

Table 2 shows that since the end of April, pro-Romney or anti-Obama groups have sponsored 54 percent of Republican ads.  By comparison, through the 8th of September in 2008, pro-McCain or anti-Obama groups accounted for only 3.5 percent of Republican ads.  Obama has sponsored 90 percent of ads supporting his candidacy since the end of April this year, down slightly from the 98 percent of pro-Obama ads sponsored by the Obama campaign through September 8, 2008.

Table 2. Advertising in General Election Presidential Race

2012 Presidential Campaign More Negative than 2008

The 2012 presidential contest is shaping up to be a much more negative one than the 2008 contest, with both sides more willing to use pure attack ads—those that solely mention the opponent. Table 3 shows that pro-Romney spots are overwhelmingly negative, with more than seven in ten focusing on Obama, and compared to 2008, pro-Obama spots this cycle are nearly twice as likely to be attacks (up from 24 percent to 46 percent).

Table 3. Tone in Presidential Advertising

“We might be witnessing this fall an interesting magic trick: the mysterious disappearance of the positive ad,” noted Wesleyan Media Project co-director Michael Franz.

Increased interest group activity is one reason for the jump in negativity on the airwaves, but candidate-sponsored ads are also more negative this cycle compared to 2008.  Fewer than a quarter (22.5 percent) of ads sponsored directly by the Obama campaign (through 9/8) were attack ads in 2008 compared to more than four in ten (42.3 percent) this cycle. More than half (54.6 percent) of ads sponsored by the Romney campaign are attack ads compared to fewer than three in ten (29.9 percent) sponsored by the McCain campaign in 2008.

Ad Battleground Concentrated on Few Key Markets

Where are all of those presidential ads being placed?  In the past two weeks, Denver was at the center of the advertising war, with local stations airing over 3,000 ads.  It is no surprise that markets in other swing states are also on the list, with markets in Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Iowa seeing the most advertisements in the last few weeks.

Many of the same media markets targeted in the past two weeks have been targeted throughout the general election campaign (Table 4).  Las Vegas, Nevada, has seen the most presidential advertising, with over 30,000 ads aired.  Over 18,000 of those were aired by, or on behalf of, the Obama campaign, while almost 13,000 of those ads supported Romney.  Markets in Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa also appear in the top 20 markets for advertising.

Table 4. Top Markets in Presidential Race during General Election

Montanans, Missourians Inundated with Senate Ads

There are several U.S. Senate races seeing high volumes of advertising this year, as Table 5 reveals.  In terms of the sheer volume of advertising, Montana’s race between incumbent Senator Jon Tester and U.S. House representative Denny Rehberg is the hottest one in the country, with almost 45,000 ads airing in Montana’s media markets since June 1.  This volume of advertising only cost about $4.5 million, however, as ad time in Montana markets is much cheaper than in other places.  By comparison, the most expensive race has been in Missouri between incumbent Claire McCaskill and U.S. House representative Todd Akin.  Candidates, parties and groups combined have already spent over $13 million on broadcast advertising in that state.  (Ad totals there are 15,000 below those in Montana.)

Table 5. Senate Races with Most Advertising

Table 6 shows that in the battle for control of the U.S. House, Georgia’s 12th congressional district has already seen over 6,500 ads, while the race to serve Connecticut’s 5th congressional district (an open seat) has been the most expensive, with candidates, parties and groups spending more than $3.5 million on broadcast advertising.  (Totals in Tables 5 and 6 include any general and primary election advertising that aired since June 1.)

Table 6. House Races with Most Advertising

Outside groups have also been very active in House and Senate races.   Tables 5 and 6 also show the percentage of ad totals sponsored by outside groups.  Totals in House races are generally lower than the outside group investments in Senate races.  In many of the top Senate races, outside groups have sponsored between 17 to over 80 percent of all of the ads through September 8.  Notably, the super PAC agreement between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown appears to be holding, with no outside groups sponsoring any ads on television since June 1.

Table 7 shows the top outside groups and their total investments in House and Senate races since June 1.  Of these 15 groups, 10 have advertised on behalf of Republicans, while 5 have supported Democratic candidates (Majority PAC, Patriot Majority, Center Forward, League of Conservation Voters, and Women Vote).  All told, pro-Republican groups have sponsored about 32% of all Republican congressional ads since June 1.  Pro-Democratic groups have sponsored about 25% of Democratic congressional ads.  These compare to 20% and 10%, respectively, for the same time period in 2008; and 17% and 9% from 2010.

Table 7. Top Outside Groups Active in Senate and House Races (since June 1)

Presidential Campaigns Focused on Issue of Jobs

Table 8 shows that Republican and Democratic ad sponsors agree that jobs/unemployment is the top issue in the presidential campaign, but pro-Romney spots are much more heavily focused on the issue of jobs and are three times as likely to mention the deficit as pro-Obama ads.  Other top Republican issues include references to the economic recession and stimulus money, government spending, health care, energy and trade policies.  Democratic ads are more likely to talk about taxes than Republican ads, which is a reversal of the usual partisan focus on the issue.  Democrats are also heavily focusing their advertising on women’s health issues and abortion and on health care and Medicare.

Table 8. Top 15 Issues by Political Party in Presidential Race

Data reported here do not cover local cable buys, only broadcast television and national cable buys.  All cost estimates are precisely that: estimates. Content information is based on ongoing Wesleyan Media Project coding of Kantar Media/CMAG video, which is 97 percent complete for the time period discussed. Intercoder reliability checks on coding found 96 percent agreement between independent assessments of tone for a Kappa score of 0.88.

The Wesleyan Media Project provides real-time tracking and analysis of all political television advertising in real-time. Housed in Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center –part of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life – the Wesleyan Media Project is the successor to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which disbanded in 2009.  It is directed by Erika Franklin Fowler, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, Michael M. Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College and Travis N. Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University.

The Wesleyan Media Project is supported by grants from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Wesleyan University.  Data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project using Academiclip, a web-based coding tool.  All spending amounts are estimates of broadcast and national cable spots.

Periodic releases of data will be posted on the project’s website and dispersed via Twitter @wesmediaproject. To be added to our email update list, click here.

For more information contact:

David Pesci at 860-685-5612 or dpesci at wesleyan.edu
Lauren Rubenstein at 860-685-3813 or lrubenstein at wesleyan.edu
Erika Franklin Fowler at 860-685-3407 or efowler at wesleyan.edu
Michael M. Franz at 207-798-4318 or mfranz at bowdoin.edu, or
Travis N. Ridout at 509-335-2264 or tnridout at wsu.edu

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