Obama's Unusual Primetime Exposure

Runs ads on entertainment shows to woo young, undecided voters
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The Barack Obama campaign—with its themes of inclusion and unity—has recast traditional political media strategy, funneling almost half of its TV cash into primetime.

Primary season political advertising traditionally has been clustered around local news, based on conventional wisdom that viewers attuned to the political process—and likely to actually vote—are probably watching the 5 o'clock news, not American Idol.

But the Obama campaign has poured more than 40% of its TV cash into primetime compared to about 18% for the Hillary Clinton campaign, according to data from TNS Media Intelligence.

That strategy reinforces Obama's appeal with young voters who have rallied around the Illinois senator. It also casts the widest possible net for undecided voters.

Primetime ad buys are the most expensive. But Obama can afford it. The campaign raised $40 million in March alone, doubling Hillary Clinton's take.

“It's a conscious strategy to broaden his base and broaden his appeal, but also it's putting that cash advantage that he's got to work,” says Evan Tracey, COO of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at TNS. “They're not waiting. They're bringing [cash] in online and sending it out on the TV.”

With less than two weeks until the crucial April 22 Pennsylvania primary, Obama has inched closer to Clinton in a state with large pockets of blue-collar workers, the so-called Reagan Democrats. Clinton's lead has narrowed to 6% among likely Democratic voters, according to a poll released last week by Quinnipiac University. That's down three points from the last poll on April 2.

Obama has outspent Clinton nearly 4-1 in Pennsylvania. He's already advertising in Indiana, which has its primary on May 6 along with North Carolina, while Clinton has yet to buy into that market.

“If the bank accounts were the same,” Tracey says, “he probably would have skipped Pennsylvania. But he has the money. Why not go out and tighten up the polls and tie her up in Pennsylvania? Every dollar she spends there she can't spend in Indiana or North Carolina. This is an attrition strategy in both time and resources.”

Obama's primetime presence also exposes him to the demographic block he has had the most trouble converting: working-class Democrats, particularly white males.

“These are not people who have a lot of time,” says Joe Trippi, a former senior advisor to John Edwards and the architect of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid. “They're busy. Some of them are working two jobs. But they watch the big [primetime] shows. The one place where they might relax is in front of the television.”

The Obama campaign is laying the groundwork for the general election, too, by exposing potential voters—Democratic, Republican and independent—to the candidate's message before the inevitable fulmination of negative advertising during the general election campaign.

“It's a twofer,” Trippi says. “You're probably reaching more blue-collar workers than are ever going to vote in a primary. But many of them who don't vote in this primary are going to vote in the general [election]. So you get to motivate the ones you can move and at least make an impression on them now before John McCain gets in there and does you damage.”


Obama's Media Blitz

Democratic presidential nominee plans appearances on 'The Daily Show,' 'Rachel Maddow Show' and 'ABC World News' to go along with broadcast ad buy Wednesday.