While Democrats spent the summer fretting about an onslaught of GOP Super-PAC spending, the Wesleyan Media project and CMAG have found that Team Obama actually aired 31 percent more advertisements than Team Romney in battleground media markets between September 9 and September 30. Not only is Team Obama airing more advertisements across the board, but Obama is airing more advertisements than Romney in 14 of the 15 top media markets, and Romney’s efforts to compensate are forcing him to make sacrifices in Iowa and New Hampshire.
To compensate for fewer resources, the Romney campaign is understandably trying to maximize the efficiency of their spending. How can a campaign maximize efficiency on ad spending? By concentrating spending in the most critical areas and staying away from media markets where money is wasted appealing to voters in other states. As a result, Team Romney is generally holding close in the most important areas, like Cleveland, Washington, Tampa, and Las Vegas. In the top 10 markets, Obama is out-airing Romney by a modest 25 percent, a decent margin but probably not enough to move the needle decidedly in Obama’s direction.
But the Romney campaign is getting outspent by a wide margin in less efficient media markets where Romney is making sacrifices and Obama has money to burn. The two states where this could hurt Romney most are New Hampshire and Iowa, where many of the states’ media markets extend beyond state borders, forcing the campaigns to spend money appealing to voters outside of the battlegrounds.
The media markets in blue areas are those where Obama is airing at least twice as many advertisements as Romney, while Romney is out-airing Obama by a 2-to-1 margin in the red markets.
While there are a few tiny blue markets ensconced deep inside of a state, most of the blue markets are the inefficient areas where dollars are wasted appealing to voters across state lines.
This is especially troubling for Romney in New Hampshire, where the Boston, Burlington, and Portland media markets serve neighboring Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. As a result, competing in New Hampshire requires the campaigns to air advertisements over much of New England, causing the campaign’s to spend far more money to achieve saturation in tiny New Hampshire than the state’s four electoral votes might suggest.
Iowa has eight media markets, but only Cedar Rapids and Des Moines exclusively serve the Hawkeye State. The other six media markets include Rochester, MN, Sioux City (which covers parts of South Dakota and Nebraska), Omaha, NE, Davenport, IA (which covers the quad-cities region, including Illinois), Quincy, IL, and Ottumwa, IA (including parts of Missouri).
Just how much is Romney hurting in these markets? He’s getting outspent by more than 3:1 in New Hampshire and between 2:1 and 5:1 in the Iowa media markets listed above. He’s also getting outspent by a wide margin in the Florida Panhandle, where media markets cross into Alabama and Georgia (although there are few swing voters here).
It's worth emphasizing that many of these markets where Obama is outspending Romney by a ridiculous margin are very small (Zanesville) or neither side is spending very much money at all (Wilmington) despite big differences on a percentage basis. But most of the areas where both sides are spending reasonable sums and Romney is getting outspent are inefficient markets like Davenport or Boston.
The decision to focus on more efficient markets is understandable, but there is a real risk in getting outspent by a big margin in areas with many persuadable voters, like Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2008, Obama did exceptionally well in moderate, Midwestern areas where he was able to outspend McCain by a meaningful margin, like Omaha and the Red River Valley, while McCain held his own in areas where he was able to match the president, like Minneapolis.
Obama is an incumbent president, so advertisements might be less likely to move the needle than they were four years ago. But it is still dangerous for Romney to get out-advertised by 2-to-1 in critical media markets like Davenport, Iowa. The accumulated effects of getting decisively outspent in peripheral media markets could easily sway a tight statewide race in a state like Iowa. Perhaps that's why Obama appears to have made large gains in Iowa and New Hampshire over the last few weeks. So long as Obama appears well positioned in Ohio and Wisconsin, New Hampshire's four electoral votes won't figure prominently into the electoral math. But if Romney loses Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa, the race is over.