Both presidential campaigns have talented commercial producers. Both offer a sophisticated, unprecedented plan for buying time. And both are spending like sailors on shore leave. But according to ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin, it probably won't matter. What will are the external issues: Iraq, the conventions, the debates and President Bush's job-approval rating.
While the two slug it out, a victor has emerged. "Broadcasters," says Sanford Bernstein media analyst Tom Wolzien. In just 90 days, TV stations raked in $85 million—nearly a million dollars a day.
And that's just from the Bush campaign. In his advertising blitzkrieg, President Bush's spots sought to define Sen. John Kerry before he could define himself.
Did the strategy work? It depends which party you ask.
"We are kicking their butt in the ad campaigns thus far," says Mark Mellman, one of just six key advisers who help Kerry make strategic decisions. "They have just spent more money on negative ads than anyone in history and, in the end, done more damage to their own candidate than to ours."
Democrats believe that the Republicans' aggressive and expensive media strategy—aimed at stripping Kerry of the positive image he enjoyed after the primaries—hurt President Bush instead. They claim Bush was damaged where he ran strongly negative ads, and polled the same in states where he didn't advertise.
Not so, counters Bush campaign Media Director Mark McKinnon. "Since the start of the race in late February, the president's ratings in the battleground states have remained stable," he says. "That's in the face of much troubling news out of Iraq and $65 million of negative advertising from John Kerry and Democratic interest groups."
Deciding whether the ads are effective is tough.
What's revealing, according to Halperin, is the overall performance.
"You can make a compelling case that, given the war in Iraq, the 9/11 commission and other so-called externalities, Kerry should be well ahead. You can make an equally compelling case that, given all the money Bush spent on negative ads, the president should be well ahead," says Halperin, an election veteran. "Instead, they appear to be in a dead heat."
And that's where words like "favorability" come in.
McKinnon cites a Pew Research Center finding that shows a net negative change of 21 points in Kerry's favorable ratings and a net negative change of 2 for the president. Mellman isn't fazed. He prefers NPR's national poll.
"According to NPR [data], the race is extremely close nationally, with Bush running one point ahead," Mellman says. "But in the battleground states—where the ad blitz was concentrated—John Kerry is leading by nine points." (Last week's New York Times/CBS Poll found that 45% of respondents said they had an unfavorable opinion of President Bush.)
Dueling polls aside, "the election is essentially about the president," Halperin adds. "So both sides engage in this tug of war. The premise that, by running lots of ads, you'll somehow win may not hold true. The noise of all the ads cannot overcome the relative lack of interest and a strongly divided nation."
While the debate over political supremacy rages, broadcasters celebrate. Post-convention, each candidate will get $75 million more in matching funds. In addition, each party is allowed to spend $16 million in coordination with the candidate. Since both campaigns are spending wildly, the real question is: What impact will the soft-money "527" nonprofit interest groups have?
"If spending goes into the stratosphere," Wolzien says, "it will be due to the 527s. How they play out will determine how the race goes." The amount is theoretically unlimited, but organizations must spend it without coordinating with candidates. That's where the big action may move in the fall, he says. "Someone like George Soros could write a check for $100 million and advertise whenever and wherever he wants."
Such advertising will be site-specific, targeting key states like a laser beam.
The advertising process, says Halperin, is more efficient than ever and relegated to just 18 or 19 states. At the end, it may be far fewer. "Everyone in the ad community constantly asks themselves: Is the creative good? Will it sell the product? And the reality is, they don't know."
Still, McKinnon prefers the latest Zogby Interactive poll. It shows that President Bush has raised his standing in swing states, wresting the lead in the race for the White House from John Kerry. "Americans are more optimistic about the economy than they were three months ago," he says, "and the president's approval ratings on Iraq are improving."
Mellman takes the long view.
"If you put things in a normal historical context," he says, "an incumbent president should be leading at this stage of a campaign. Bush is president of the United States—the most powerful person in the world—and voters have had four years to get to know him. A challenger has to spend time and money becoming well-known and usually doesn't break out until after the convention."
Historically, about 70% of the undecided vote ultimately goes to the challenger. Key to the forthcoming election, Mellman claims, is that the incumbent is already below 50% favorability. "No other elected incumbent president has ever been under 50% at this stage and gone on to win," he says. "Usually, they are leading the challenger by double digits nationally, not in a dead heat as we are."
With both camps feeling optimistic and the conventions gearing up in July and August, there is only one declared winner: TV stations. They have already raked in a $150 million haul. It's unclear whether the advertising onslaught helped or hurt the candidates, but one thing is certain: Post-Labor Day, there will be another $150 million in the TV industry's till.
"The new rules of campaign-finance reform have made everything more unruly," says Wolzien. "Broadcasters have never had it better."