In the first three weeks of September, Barack Obama ran 1,342 television commercials in the Washington media market that reaches heavily populated and contested Northern Virginia.
According to The Nielsen Company, in the same period and market, John McCain aired just eight commercials on broadcast stations.
Similar disparities are playing out across the country as the Illinois Democrat flexes his financial muscle to outspend McCain and the Republican National Committee on television advertisements, in some cases by ratios of as much as 8-to-1.
As of close of business last week, Obama had spent approximately $195 million on primary and general election ads compared with $99 million by the Arizona Republican and the Republican National Committee, according to the Competitive Media Analysis Group.
And the gap is widening in the final weeks. As McCain constricted his Virginia ad campaign to cable stations and smaller, downstate media markets, Obama doubled down on Northern Virginia.
The Democrat’s average weekly broadcast buy of about $700,000 in Washington jumped last week by nearly threefold to about $2 million, according to station public records.
The spending figures are significant because they demonstrate how Obama’s fundraising advantage has helped him drown out his opponent and maintain a longer — and more positive — presence in the living rooms of voters in critical swing states.
“Obama is spending $3.5 million a day on television ads,” said Evan Tracey, CMAG’s chief operating officer. “If he does that through Election Day, it will be more than McCain got from the government for his entire general election campaign.”
Republicans are using every wrinkle and loophole in — ironically — the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law to try to keep pace and stretch their spending power.
The RNC is feverishly raising cash to augment McCain’s $85 million allotment from the taxpayer-backed presidential campaign financing account.
The party headquarters is expected to spend $19 million in coordinated campaign activities with McCain and another $45 million in hybrid ads that promote McCain and other Republican candidates.
The tactic, which was introduced by the Bush-Cheney reelection committee in 2004, allows a 50-50 split on ad costs for the RNC and McCain. But the results can be messy since the candidate isn’t in full control of his own message.
McCain’s much-anticipated first ad attacking Obama’s ties to former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers was widely panned because it also included an attack on congressional Democrats over federal spending, a muddling of messages deemed necessary to justify the RNC’s portion of the costs.
Even if the messaging went smoothly, though, the financial maneuvering would still only boost McCain’s spending to about $150 million for the general election.
The remaining spending gaps will have to be filled by the RNC with independent expenditures and transfers of cash to state party operations for swing-state voter turnout operations. According to Federal Election Commission disclosure forms, about $11 million has already been doled out by the RNC to seven states, most of which are in presidential battlegrounds.
But Obama’s recent purchase of at least one 30-minute block of time on a national network — which could cost about $1 million — has many Republicans worrying that they are up against an even bigger machine than they’d imagined.
The staggered release of fundraising disclosure reports isn’t helping their plight. Obama’s September donations totals will be released next week. Republicans won’t know how much he collects in this final month until after Election Day.
Meanwhile, Obama is urging backers to pony up for the final push and to grow his already record-breaking 2 million donors by at least 100,000 by this Friday.
The consequences of such a significant financial mismatch are already becoming evident on the Electoral College playing field.
Again, look at Virginia, a state that hasn’t backed a Democratic candidate since 1964 and is now considered a tossup.
During the heated primary with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama spent $1.5 million in the Old Dominion. McCain, who was cruising to the nomination and had little money at that point in the GOP primary, spent just $330,000 on ads.
Since the Democratic primary ended in June, Obama has spent another $13 million in Virginia, compared with McCain’s $5.5 million, CMAG found.
Obama’s buying power allows him to run a mix of positive and negative ads and to spread them over a wider swath of turf. He is also able to play in all media markets, expensive or not. That’s a luxury McCain can’t afford, as evidenced by his near-blackout in Northern Virginia.
"McCain is virtually invisible in the commercial breaks,” said Bill Lord, vice president of news for WJLA-TV, the Washington ABC affiliate that is owned by Politico parent company Allbritton Communications Co.
To stay competitive in Virginia and elsewhere, McCain has made a series of ad buys in smaller markets or those that can provide a two-fer by bleeding into more than one state.
Nebraska is one of just two states that distributes its Electoral College votes based on the outcome in each of its three congressional districts, an unusual allocation that enticed the Obama campaign to fight for the Omaha-based district vote while all but conceding the rest of the traditionally Republican state to McCain.
While Obama is significantly outspending McCain in the Omaha television market, McCain has been making major buys in less expensive, nearby Sioux City, Iowa, which reaches both Omaha and Hawkeye State voters.
In the first three weeks of September, McCain ran more than 1,000 ads on those smaller stations while Obama didn’t run any.
Though Iowa voted for President Bush in 2004, it is another state that Democrats are confident they can flip from red to blue come November.
Dissatisfaction with the war and the economy are helping their effort. But Obama’s early work in the primary is also paying dividends and may have put the state out of Republican reach before the general election even began.
Since June, McCain and the RNC have spent about $4 million in Iowa, airing mostly negative ads aimed at raising doubts about his opponent.
But they appear to have had little effect on Obama, who spent $10 million on television commercials introducing himself to voters before the winter caucuses.
Since June, he’s invested another $2 million on ads in in Iowa — a paltry sum by Obama’s standards but one that may reflect confidence that a roughly 12-point lead in state polls will hold up until Election Day.
A study recently released by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, an arm of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, documented similar imbalances in other key states.
The report zeroed in on one week of spending, Sept. 28 to Oct. 4. It found that Obama was outspending McCain and the RNC by more than 3-to-1 in Florida, 2-to-1 in New Hampshire and 8-to-1 in North Carolina.
“Because of Obama’s fundraising advantage, his campaign is able to spend more in more states than we’ve seen in recent memory,” said Ken Goldstein, the project’s director.
McCain and the RNC are still trying to play a little offense: Pennsylvania is a rare state they hope will flip from blue to red.
Both campaigns have spent about $16.5 million on advertisements in the Keystone State since June.
But, as in Iowa, McCain’s messages are being delivered to an audience that has already had plenty of exposure to Obama.
When his primary television budget is added to the general election spending, Obama’s overall advertising in Pennsylvania — so far — comes to $27 million, compared to McCain’s $17 million.
"Obama is matching McCain’s negative ads and using the excess spending to do positive spots. He’s able to be both the good cop and the bad cop,” said Tracey.