Entering the peak of the political ad season, advertising industry observers say national cable is already an early winner.
Political ad spending "has been propelled so far by national cable buys and some local broadcast buys, which are now pulling to the traditional and new battleground states," says Joe Erwin, president of IPG-owned Erwin-Penland, who is active in the Democrat Party in South Carolina.
One of the biggest percentage jumps in revenue has come from the cable news networks. TNS Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) estimates that networks such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC will take in a combined $30-$35 million in presidential ads this election cycle. That virtually triples the comparable $11 million in 2004.
Besides political candidate ads, "Energy [issue] advertising is a huge emerging category," says Greg D'Alba, executive VP and chief operating officer of CNN Ad Sales. D'Alba says it has quadrupled this election cycle and expects it will continue after Election Day.
TNS forecasts that presidential race spending in TV alone will top $800 million for broadcast TV and cable, versus $500 million in the 2004 presidential contest. It's expected 70% of that outlay will be from Sept. 4 until Election Day on Nov. 4.
CMAG chief operating officer Evan Tracey says campaigns like cable news because of the broad audience of the political class, corporate executives and the general public that is disposed to making political donations. "It's easier to raise money if people who are writing checks can watch TV and say, 'Hey, that's the ad I'm paying for,'" he says.
For TV stations, "Geography is everything," says Jack Poor, Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) VP of marketing. Some of the ad-intensive battleground states seem to be in play as constant campaign polling redirects the flow of ad spend. For example, as of a week ago, the Barack Obama campaign seems to have pulled back in normal swing state Florida and in Georgia, which would be a take-away state, but keeps buying local TV in traditional red state North Carolina.
Both presidential candidates are broadening ad spend and demo focus in comparison to past presidential races, with the Obama campaign targeting youth and John McCain reportedly recently buying daytime broadcast network and syndicated shows targeting older-skewing women.
Campaign ad spend in 2008 is also destined to be backloaded because the political 527 soft-money committees can advertise up to Election Day, after a 2007 court decision overturned a 60-day blackout. Also, the Obama campaign has no limit on direct spending, since it opted out of the federal campaign finance program.
"Political advertising usually comes down to the last week before the election," says Spot Runner Director of Media Planning Catherine Hahn, who worked for Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection ad agency. "There seem to be a lot of people in the undecided camp this time around."