If you were watching TV in Denver last week, you noticed a lot of political advertising. President Obama and former governor Mitt Romney have aired more than 26,000 ads in the swing state capital.
Political campaigns know that what you watch says a lot about who you are likely to vote for.
Democrats watch soap operas, Republicans watch news. College football skews Republican, the NBA skews Democratic -- except in Boston. Want to find independent voters? They're watching Biography.
As well-funded political campaigns seek every possible advantage, campaign ads are increasingly spread across the TV schedule based on the political skew of particular programs.
Smaller audiences mean a TV show "is more likely to have a political personality,'' says Will Feltus of National Media, a Republican media-buying firm. "The Super Bowl doesn't skew Republican or Democratic, but the Colorado-Colorado State (football) game almost certainly skews Republican.''
Ads are targeted not just to partisans but to partisans who vote, Feltus says: CBS' The Mentalist not only skews Republican, but 70% of them are likely voters. 60 Minutes viewers are more likely to be Democrats who vote. Undercover Boss viewers are disproportionately Republican, but vote less than average. Ditto Democrats and WWE Friday Night Smackdown.
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Last week in Denver - host to Wednesday's first presidential debate - President Obama's campaign aired four ads in one hour-long episode of The Doctors, a daytime chat show, and six ads during NBC's late-night lineup. Why? Because that's where the Democrats are: they're 28% more likely to watch daytime talk shows than all TV viewers, and 24% more likely to watch late-night chat, according to Scarborough Research, an audience research firm whose data are the basis of political media targeting.
Beginning with the George W. Bush campaign in 2004, campaigns have used data such as Scarborough's to target TV ads by audiences with considerable sophistication. As a result, ad buying becomes a combination of reaching big audiences - which is why broadcast networks rather than cable channels get most of the ads - and the right audiences.
Denver, being the biggest media market in a key swing state, is seeing a deluge of ads.
Audiences watching NBC affiliate KUSA last Tuesday saw 93 ads from Obama's and Mitt Romney's campaigns and two super PACs supporting them. KUSA and USA TODAY are owned by Gannett. The Obama campaign and the super PAC Priorities USA Action, ran more than twice as many ads as Romney and American Crossroads, 63 ads to 30 ads. Ads ran in every program from the early news at 4 a.m. to Last Call with Carson Daly at 1 a.m., More than 40% of the presidential ads ran during local news shows - still a target for campaigns because they attract political independents who turn out to vote.
With targeting, "you can calculate the cost of (buying an ad in) the show not in terms of demographic rating points but in target voter ratings points,'' Feltus says. It's a lot of work, but worth it in a close race like this year's presidential election, he says. "All this stuff works at the margins. If it's a 1-point or 2-point race, it matters."
In 2008, an analysis of media buys for Obama and McCain showed that the Obama campaign reached a broader spectrum of independent and Republican leaning independents with its ad buying. Obama "was leaning more toward the (strategy) to reach out send a wide message, put some ads on programs where the demographics weren't necessarily favorable, they weren't all hard-core Democrats,'' says Travis Ridout, a Washington State University political scientist involved in the analysis. That included, for instance, religious programs, which have heavily Republican audiences.
McCain was so hampered by lack of money that his campaign wasn't able to do a lot of program targeting, says Kyle Roberts of Smart Media Group, who was McCain's media buyer. This year, Obama, with the benefit of the experience of 2008, can do multiple layers of targeting with his TV buys: adults 25 and over, then women viewers, or even a third category. "They've mastered that system, strategically and tactically,'' Roberts says.
Romney suffers from none of the financial constraints that McCain did. But it's not clear, media buyers say, that his campaign is running as nuanced a media buying program as Obama's. In Denver, for instance, Romney did not run ads during the Denver Broncos season opener on Sept. 9, the debut of the team's new marquee quarterback Peyton Manning. Obama ran three, at $28,000 each. On the Denver NBC affiliate last Tuesday, Romney ran 10 of 21 ads in local news and skipped prime time. (On other Denver stations, Romney has run ads during The Mentalist, NCIS, and NFL games.)
Obama's media strategy may be more complex because a much larger proportion of pro-Obama advertising is bought by his campaign, Roberts says. Romney is relying more on support from outside groups such as American Crossroads and another PAC called Restore Our Future. That means the Obama campaign is in charge of almost all the ad spending - while Romney and his supporters by law cannot coordinate their efforts.
"Obama money is all Obama money. Obama can do whatever he wants with it,'' Roberts says.
Obama's money will also go further: Pro-Romney super PACs don't get the "lowest unit rate" that TV stations are required by the FCC to give candidates. In Denver, for instance, Romney paid $1,400 to run a 30-second ad during KUSA's 5 p.m. news. Crossroads had to pay $2,500. As a result, Romney's supporting groups "are going to find themselves spending an awful lot of money in the last three weeks to match Obama's spot count,'' says Jack Poor of the Television Bureau, the broadcaster's trade association.
And while TV stations are obligated to sell "reasonable amounts" of airtime to candidates close to the election, according to the FCC, there's no such duty to sell to superPACs; if a station wants to cap the amount of political ad time it sells in favor of regular advertisers like local auto dealers, it can. "There is only so much inventory they can buy,'' says Fletcher Whitwell, media director for R&R Partners, a political ad firm based in Las Vegas. That could mean targeting goes out the window, he says. "They may start being scientific but they may also just buy what's available.''
Editor's Note: This story was written and researched compiled by USA Today. KUSA and USA Today are owned by Gannett.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)