Putting Bucks in The Buckeye State

The Obama and Romney camps, and the Super PACs, have decided that Ohio—perhaps more than any state—holds the key to the White House, and they are spending big to seize it

Tiny Zanesville, Ohio knows from rolling in
dough; after all, a massive baking site there cranks
out as many as 3,500 sandwich buns a minute for
Wendy’s burger joints around the nation. But DMA No. 203
is making bread of a different sort these days. While Ohio
has long been on the short list of swing states in the presidential
elections, it may just be THE state—the purple-est
of the purple states, the swingin’-est of the swing states—as
the Obama and Romney camps, and their supporting Super
PACs, place colossal bets in TV markets large and small
throughout the Buckeye State.

For Zanesville, a straight 50-mile shot east of Columbus along I-70,
the election means a veritable circus maximus each day. The market has
had visits from both President Barack Obama
and challenger Mitt Romney this year,
and Vice President Biden as well. When
the president can’t be there in person, he
makes do with a spot that, at 120 seconds,
is more like an infomercial than a commercial.
It means a Japanese TV crew showing
up at WHIZ, the only station licensed to
Zanesville, to shoot a documentary about
this peculiar American event known as political
spending in a swing state.

Throw in a torrid Senate contest, with Ohio
Democrat Sherrod Brown facing a furious
challenge from Josh Mandel—a race that will
see at least $56 million spent on TV, according
to the Sunlight Foundation think tank—and it
makes for a tsunami of political ads that consumes
so much local oxygen that some Zanesville advertisers
are holding off on sales events until after the
smoke clears in November. “It’s the craziest thing
I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in
20 years,” said Doug Pickrell, WHIZ general sales
manager. “In addition to the amount of money being
spent, and how early it started, there are just so
many oddities.”

Indeed, it’s a nutty story up and down the Buckeye
State. While Florida, Virginia and Nevada can
swing as well, many pundits believe no state is
more hotly contested than Ohio and its 18 electoral
votes. It was the first state mentioned in an
anecdote by Romney during last week’s debate, and
that’s no coincidence. With only four weeks left,
the battle—and the serious spending—is just getting

“The biggest thing is that the cycle started so
much earlier,” said Les Vann, WKRC Cincinnati
vice president/general manager. “In 2008, it was
late summer, and in 2012 it was April. This year,
May, June and July look like 2008’s July, August
and September.”

The spending is pacing Ohio markets to blockbuster
revenue. Cincinnati, say TV insiders there,
stands to get $50 million in political this year, up
from $34 million in 2008. Cleveland is on course
for $85-$100 million, said one sales manager, up
from $41-$42 million in 2008. Cincinnati is headed
for an estimated $153.4 million in total revenue, according
to BIA/Kelsey, 20% better than 2011. Columbus
looks to be up 20%, while Cleveland is pacing up 24%.
Youngstown is up 18%, Lima 22%, and little Zanesville is
up 17.5%.

“That’s way above the national average of 9.9%,” said Mark Fratrik,
BIA/Kelsey VP/chief economist. “It’s obviously all political.”

Ohio’s vital role in national elections is hardly new. John F. Kennedy
held up a swollen, calloused right hand on Election Night in 1960, as
the story goes, and said, “Ohio did this to me.” As pundits are inclined
to remind us, no GOP candidate has won the White House without
winning Ohio. A key difference between 2012 and previous elections,
however, is that strategists decided early in the year the race would
likely come down to Ohio and a few other states. “They’re spending
an incredible amount to reach that tiny sliver,” Kenneth Goldstein,
president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, said at the
TVB conference last month. “It’s been phenomenally focused.”

For many Ohio stations, it’s been a steady stream of buys since the Republican
primary wrapped back on March 6. Compounding
the returns is the fact that the candidates
only qualify for the lowest-unit ad rate within a 60-
day window of the election. In other words, they
paid market rates for an avalanche of spots from
early March until early September. PACs, of course,
pay full price all the time.

“I don’t know that we ever saw $18.5 million in
political in the market in the first six months of an
election year,” said Renee Morley, general sales manager
at WOIO Cleveland. “That’s the really big story,
and that’s a good indicator of what’s to come.”

What’s to come is around $30 million in Cleveland
political spending in October alone. “It’s just
scary,” Morley said.

Political candidates have always bought the socalled
3-C corridor—Cleveland, Columbus and
Cincinnati. But both the candidates and their Super PACs are going
statewide this time around, often with a specific message tailored to
each market. President Obama’s two-minute spots, in which he takes
viewers through a detailed four-point recovery plan, airs in all nine Ohio
TV markets. “If I could sit down in your living room or at your kitchen
table,” he said, “here’s what I would say.” (The 120-second spot is also
running in other states, including key Florida markets.)

“A vote in Youngstown is just as important as one in Cleveland,” said
Fratrik, “and it may be easier to get because the CPMs are lower.”

Where’s Mitt?

Some compelling trends have emerged across the state. The shocking
political ad revenue levels have been reached despite the Romney camp
holding off on spending in several markets until very recently. Mark
Silverman, president at cable’s Big Ten Network, which garners mammoth
ratings in Ohio, was flummoxed that efforts
to reach Camp Romney’s media buyers
were unrequited through September. Romney
finally got on-air in Youngstown as October
neared. “In my opinion, it’s a huge tactical mistake
on his part,” said Jack Grdic, GM at WFMJ
Youngstown. “I’m a little shocked he waited so
long to start here.”

If there’s any downside to the spending, it’s
that stations are challenged with keeping regular
advertisers happy while they’re being squeezed
out by the presidentials, not to mention Senate
hopefuls. Station chiefs say local advertisers, for the most part, understand
the drill—especially since Ohio has been in the candidates’ crosshairs
for as long as anyone can remember. Some clear communication
goes a long way to keeping relationships healthy. “When we saw how
early it was coming, we hit the street to meet with our agencies and
clients,” said WKRC’s Vann. “The fact that we got out in front of it made
a huge difference.”

Viewers too seem to be mostly taking things in stride, even if they
are wearing out the mute button while looking forward to the day in
November when Obama and Romney get the heck out of their family
rooms. While no one appreciates the often-bellicose tone of the messaging
(“Certainly nothing has happened to make them more congenial,”
said Bob Chirdon, WTOL Toledo VP and GM), viewers, like advertisers,
have come to accept it as part of living in Ohio.

Grdic said he received just two phone calls in
Youngstown to complain about the onslaught of
political spots. “Too often, it’s been about Columbus
and Cleveland and Cincinnati,” he said. “There’s a
sense here that it’s nice to feel important.”

The Swing of Things

Just before the first debate, an NBC News/Wall
Street Journal
poll had Obama with 51% of the Ohio
vote, Romney 43%. With the fluid nature of political
races, Ohio could swing more into Obama’s
camp, making Florida, Nevada or North Carolina
the candidates’ new object of obsession. The Sunshine
State and its 29 electoral votes has its own colorful
history of deciding close races. “They’ve been
spending in the state since May,” said Jim Carter,
president/GM of WESH Orlando, “so it must be an important one.”

But station executives in Ohio see no signs of the presidential arms
race letting up before Nov. 6. “They can’t afford to stop spending because
of the investment they’ve made to date,” said Tom Griesdorn, WBNS
Columbus president/GM. “The loser goes home.”

Some Zanesville residents look forward to the relative peace and quiet
Nov. 7 will bring. For his part, WHIZ’s Pickrell suggested Zanesville
won’t be the same without the Japanese TV crews and the presidential
hopefuls, the buzz in the newsroom and the cacophony in the sales office. “I’m busier than a one-armed paper hanger right now,” he said with
a laugh. “But I find it fascinating, and I like the speed of it. In a way, I’ll
miss it.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com
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