Candidates spend record coin targeting undecideds

NEW YORK There’s still more than three months to go before the November election and the two presidential candidates and their supporters have spent millions more on TV ads than was spent during the entire 2000 race for the Oval Office.

Political ad experts estimate that $200 million already has been spent by the Dems and Republicans in this year’s White House contest, and that figure could triple by election day. Four years ago, President Bush and Al Gore and their respective allies doled out roughly $150 million on TV spots.

Yet it’s only a chosen number of states that are seeing the majority of the Bush and Kerry ads, making viewers there one of the most worked-over and sought-after target groups in advertising history.

While the rest of the country is deluged with the slick new ads accompanying the bow of the fall TV sked, it will be the John vs. George show in the 17 battleground states. Among those, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan are seeing the heaviest action.

According to polls, as few as 5% of all voters are undecided in this year’s race. Since there’s only a small number of states where undecided voters could influence the outcome in that particular state, the two campaigns are really only trying to reach about 2.5% of undecided voters.

For once, the flyover states are where it’s at, not the normally hip-and-happening West and East Coasts.

There has been an all-out blizzard in Ohio, with ferocious spending in Toledo, Dayton, Columbus and Ohio. Political experts predict that viewers in Ohio and the other battleground states are being deluged with hundreds upon hundreds of ads.

Not to mention the TV stations in these hot-spot states, which are striking electoral gold.

“If a station group is lucky enough to have a substantial number of stations in those cities in those states, then you’re doing extremely well,” says Katz Television VP and programming director Bill Carroll.

“Otherwise, if a particular state is believed to be in one column or the other in terms of undecided or undecided, there won’t be as extensive a schedule.”

Belo Corp., Hearst-Argyle, Gannett Co., Meredith Corp. and Sinclair Broadcasting are well positioned to profit from the political spending spree, as they have a number of stations in the 17 battleground states. Viacom’s CBS-owned stations and GE’s NBC-owned stations also are poised to benefit.

Earlier this year, investment bank Legg Mason upgraded the ratings on four station groups — Hearst Argyle, Gray Television, Lin TV Corp. and Sinclair Broadcasting Group — saying they would virtually be “printing money’” through the November election thanks to the heated prez race, along with congressional contests.

There’s nothing new about steep upticks in campaign spending; there hasn’t been one presidential election where there hasn’t been a rise in ad spending.

What’s different this time around is the newfound ability of the Democrats to keep up with the GOP, due to the emergence of activist groups such as MoveOn.org and the Media Fund, both of which enjoy visible Hollywood support.

As of early August, George Bush’s re-election effort had spent roughly $86 million on ads, while Kerry’s campaign itself had spent $73 million. But add in the $42 million spent on spots by MoveOn and others, and suddenly the Democrats have outspent the generally coffer-rich GOP — even though the Republicans are expected to spend more by the end of the election.

“This Democratic advantage is surprising,” says political science professor Ken Goldstein, who heads up the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison.

Virtually 60% of the country won’t see campaign ads, other than those airing on national cable, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project.

Goldstein believes that it is inefficient to aim all this money at such a small group, but he doesn’t see anything changing.

“By a long shot, ads are clearly the main communications message in modern presidential campaigns,” Goldstein says.

Legg Mason is predicting that total political advertising in the Nov. election could exceed $1.3 billion, almost double the $910 million spent on all races in the 2000 election.

“The sky’s the limit,” Legg Mason media and telecom analyst Blair Levin said when announcing the station upgrades. “It’s great to be in the final four (Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania) but being in the sweet 17 ain’t so bad either.”

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