Correction Appended: Sept. 13, 2012
The presidential campaign has created a wonderful problem for television stations in swing states across America. How do they keep local businesses like car dealers and law firms from being shut out of the airwaves by the massive spending of the Obama and Romney campaigns and their super-PAC allies? "It's been a challenge, because the campaign has been bigger than what we forecast for this year," says Chuck DeVendra, sales director for WBNS, the CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. "We've got to take care of our regular advertisers too. We want them to be successful." On the upside, the stations are making a killing, charging up to $1,000 per second for a prime-time ad slot. From Cincinnati, Les Vann, vice president and general manager of WKRC, agrees: "If we have an October like I suspect we're going to have, it will be a record."
It's a strange fact of modern politics that, even after revolutions in media and technology, campaigns are still fought out much as they were a generation ago: in thousands of 30-second increments on television. And September is the month when campaign advertising, already running at record-breaking levels, may melt your flat screen. Ad watchers estimate that the Obama and Romney campaigns and their super-PAC supporters have dropped only about half the $1.1 billion they're projected to spend by Election Day. An NBC News analysis finds that the candidates and their outside groups have spent $575 million in just 12 states. That means the two camps could drop an additional $600 million in the next two months lighting up TV screens with their boasts and body blows. "A deluge is coming," warns Steven Law, CEO of the Republican super PAC American Crossroads.
The only thing more astounding than all this spending is the uncertainty of campaign pros and political analysts over what difference all the money will make in the end. The hundreds of millions of dollars already spent has produced weeks of a virtual tie, with the only significant movement occurring after the nation focused on the parties' national conventions: Democrats threw the more energizing celebration, and Barack Obama went home from Charlotte with a small bounce in the polls.
But now the campaigns are like two armies fighting intensely over a few hundred yards of bombed-out terrain. Campaign pros estimate that a tiny 6% of the national electorate remains undecided about whom to vote for, and the raw number in the swing states could be a few million. But while those voters may be persuadable, they could be getting their fill of persuasion as the campaigns drown them in nonstop advertising appeals that threaten to become a constant, grating presence, like a neighbor's endless home renovation.
But money still matters, and in the campaign's closing weeks it stands to benefit Mitt Romney the most. Obama has dumped about $200 million on advertising so far, but Romney and the super PACs backing him are cranking up their firepower. "We will be outspent" by Election Day, concedes Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. "But our grassroots is how we win." Romney needs the help. With his opponent riding a small postconvention bounce and Republicans growing restless about their nominee's lack of progress, pummeling Obama on the airwaves may be Romney's best shot at victory.