Despite super-PACs, Obama is staying even in ad reach

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Maybe the "super-PACs" were not so super after all.

Despite repeated warnings from President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party that a flood of unrestricted donations from conservatives to outside groups would swamp them, the White House and its allies are at least holding their own. Over the last month, the pro-Obama forces have run more ads and, more critically, have reached audiences in roughly the same numbers as Mitt Romney and the bevy of well-financed conservative super-PACs working to elect him.

A review of data from the last 30 days from Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political ad placements, shows that 160,000 commercials supporting the president have run, compared with 140,000 for Mr. Romney. And the Obama campaign and its supporters have broadcast more ads during the morning news and prime-time periods when television viewership is highest.

Though the disparity has started to narrow somewhat over the last week, the story in battleground states has been the same for much of the last month: even at their most effective, the super-PACs have helped Mr. Romney fight only to a draw.

The lack of a discernible Republican advantage is all the more surprising because Mr. Romney and conservatives have been spending more money. Overall, total Republican ad spending for the presidential campaign is about $500 million. Democrats have put in close to $400 million.

Yet unpublished estimates of how many people are seeing the ads, based on Nielsen ratings, show that, overall, neither side has been getting into significantly more homes.

In Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, for example, Republicans have put down considerably higher amounts in local television markets -- sometimes by a 3-to-2 margin. But that spending did not translate into a commensurate advantage with viewers, audience data available to the presidential campaigns showed.

In Florida and New Hampshire, in fact, pro-Obama ads have been reaching considerably more people, the data showed.

But Mr. Romney and his supporters have started to place heavier ad buys. And with eight days until the election, there is still plenty of time for them to increase their engagement.

But Mr. Obama has been helped by a structural advantage, stemming from a broad disparity in how he, Mr. Romney and their allies have built their war chests. Both men are on track to raise $1 billion along with their parties this election cycle, with much of the money budgeted for advertising. And when the super-PACs are included, the final tally will include hundreds of millions of dollars more, most of that benefiting Republicans. Far more of the money Mr. Romney has raised to date has been for the Republican National Committee.

But Mr. Obama and the Democrats, buoyed by millions of small donors, have raised a vast majority of his cash directly for his campaign committee, which under federal law is entitled to preferential ad rates over political parties and super-PACs.

On the Republican side, super-PAC spending has been a far greater necessity because of the Romney campaign's cash shortages over the summer. More than half of pro-Romney advertising spending to date has come from super-PACs, which sometimes pay double and triple what candidates pay for TV time.

For example, in Florida over the last month, both sides reserved roughly the same amount of time -- at $25 million each. But the audience reach of the pro-Obama ads was far greater, sometimes by 20 percent, audience data showed.

The Obama campaign believes that the differences between its advertising strategy and the Republicans' efforts, which are more disjointed, are helpful in other ways. First, it can control almost all of the advertising placement and timing itself. Second, the Obama campaign has not had to rely nearly as heavily on outside groups, which campaigns are prohibited from coordinating with.

That is not to say that the Obama strategy is not without inefficiencies or unexpected expense. In fact, the campaign said it had spent more in the last three weeks than it initially budgeted.

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