Costs are staggering as campaigns begin last-minute downpour of ads

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Had enough?

Too bad: The state-formerly-known-as-not-up-for-grabs suddenly is in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's sights, if his last-minute advertising deluge in Pennsylvania is any indication.

The campaign has purchased more than $10 million in ad buys beginning Thursday and continuing through this weekend, compared with about $3 million by President Barack Obama's campaign.

The presidential campaign in 180 seconds

Soundbites, gaffes, rhetoric and lots of numbers -- all tell the story of the 2012 presidential campaign in just 180 seconds. (Video by Steve Mellon and Melissa Tkach; 11/2/2012)

No polls show Mr. Romney ahead here -- Mr. Obama has the edge by between 4 to 8 points, but the Romney campaign says the gap is closing.

PG VIDEO

That contention has set off not just dueling advertising in already saturated markets, but dueling statements by campaign spokespeople about those ads: Friday, Obama campaign spokesman Michael Czin said Romney's ad blizzard "reeks of desperation," reminiscent of 2008 when Sen. John McCain also spent his last weekend in a futile effort to win the state, which has gone Democratic in every presidential campaign in the past 20 years.

"They're not just throwing the kitchen sink at Pennsylvania, they're throwing the whole kitchen" at the state's media markets, he said.

"President Obama is playing defense in states that were once considered safely in his column," countered Romney spokeswoman Kate Meriwether, who noted Gov. Ed Rendell's prediction last week that the state might go for the GOP candidate -- a statement he later retracted.

There's no question, though, that this 2012 campaign -- with its unlimited spending by outside groups -- is making history, at least political advertising history.

Consider these numbers:

One million: as in the number of separate presidential ads airing on broadcast and national cable television since June 1, according to a Wesleyan University study, which is a 44.5 percent increase from the same period in 2008.

One billion: the amount spent on advertising by both campaigns and outside groups ($968 million, actually) according to NBC News/SMG Delta.

And while most are attack ads, a new study from Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released Friday says that negativity isn't just coming from advertising, but from the media, much of it poll-driven.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have both received more negative than positive coverage from the news media -- at least in so-called horse-race stories -- during an eight-week period late this summer and fall, while social media coverage was even nastier.

A careful tracking of stories in the mainstream media by Pew found that negative coverage tended to follow a candidate's trajectory in the polls, according to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center.

"The media tend to reinforce and perhaps increase any phenomenon they observe," he said, noting that before the first debate, polls were mostly favoring Mr. Obama and he received only 27 percent negative news coverage, versus 22 percent positive, with the rest neutral or mixed. After the debate, polls declared the president the loser, and negative coverage for him went up to 36 percent, compared to 13 percent positive, the Pew study says.

In September, Mr. Romney was trailing in the polls, criticized at the time for his comments about Libya, and a video in which he essentially dismissed 47 percent of the American public. At that point, 44 percent of news stories about him were negative, compared with 11 percent positive and the rest neutral. After his well-received performance in the Oct. 3 debate, however, Mr. Romney's poll numbers shot up and the negative coverage went down.

Note that neither candidate, regardless of how far ahead or behind he is in the polls, ever gets lots and lots of "glowing coverage," Mr. Rosenstiel said.

"There is rarely a week that a candidate's coverage overall is more positive than negative. The tendency we see is that the press echoes the polls, and when there's a shift in momentum, that redounds to the negative for the candidate who is losing momentum."

Given a culture "in which a plane that crashes is bigger news than a plane that lands, the press tends to look more harshly on a candidate who perceived to be losing ground rather than cheering for a candidate that appears to be gaining ground."

The study divided stories by category: horse-race stories (those focused on strategy, tactics and the polls) versus those about substance (policy, biographies and records). For the most part, both candidates received about the same balance of coverage for "substance" stories.

In social media -- Twitter, Facebook and blogs -- each candidate fared badly, with the narrative about both men by turns critical, sarcastic or outraged, regardless of what national television, radio and newspaper outlets were saying.

One cable outlet was overwhelmingly one-sided -- MSNBC stood out with 71 percent of the segments about Romney negative in tone, compared with just 3 percent that were positive, according to the study. On Fox, 46 percent of the segments about Obama were negative, compared with 6 percent that were positive.

It wasn't always this way, at least for Mr. Obama.

In 2008, his coverage was almost twice as positive as it has been this year and more positive than negative overall. His opponent, Sen. John McCain, received far more negative press than Romney did this year: 57 percent negative, a really "punishing narrative," Mr. Rosenstiel said, and only 14 percent positive.

The closeness of the race is also making the difference this year.

But as the 2012 campaign enters its final four days, will voters tune out the polls, the media coverage -- and the advertising?

Most experts talk of the "decay" of advertising effects -- when the impact of a particular message dissipates over time. That's why late ads, with a fresh message or take on an issue, can be so effective, especially if one side vastly outspends the other.

So far, it's not clear that's happening. While super-PACs backing Mr. Romney may have more cash to buy ads, they're also paying more than the Obama campaign, which bought ads in key states earlier at discounted rates. And in some key states, there's the "ad inventory" problem -- all airtime is already booked.

Then, too, this could be the weekend when voters say, enough, said Benjamin Bates, an Ohio University professor who researches political communication.

"There is a tipping point for TV advertising, and voters get frustrated," he said, noting that ads in Ohio have become so overwhelming -- six or seven stacked one on top of the other -- that he and his colleagues have taken to recording them on DVR rather than watching them live on television.

Mr. Bates also cited a University of Miami study that found negative advertising works only if used in moderation. Viewers who looked at a negative ad once didn't remember it, whereas positive reception was highest when they saw the ad three times -- and lowest when they saw it five times.

Mr. Rosenstiel, who once covered advertising for the Los Angeles Times, quoted Republican political consultant and former White House Press Secretary David Gergen, who said to him: "Imagine a blackboard. The more writing on a blackboard, the less any new writing matters. This year, there's even more writing than there's ever been, because there are more ads."

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com First Published November 3, 2012 4:00 AM


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