In one Ohio ad buy slated to run just before the election, for example, Obama is paying $125 for a spot that is costing a conservative super PAC $900.
The imbalance could prove crucial over the next six weeks, when the candidates and their allies are expected to burn through about $1 billion worth of advertising in battleground states and deploy thousands of staffers and volunteers to drum up votes. With $1.5 billion already spent on the White House race, the final barrage will help determine whether Romney can turn around his fortunes and defeat the incumbent.
Republicans, who have more cash overall, say they expect to dominate the airwaves through November despite Obama’s advantage in ad rates and grass-roots organizing. They also say they hope to combat the president’s vaunted ground game through the efforts of the Republican National Committee and independent groups.
“I think we’re in a strong place message-wise with the economy still struggling, with 26 million still struggling for work and with world events looking more and more uncertain,” Romney strategist Russ Schriefer said. “I’m confident that we will be able to get our message out.”
Romney’s White House bid is being handled largely outside his official campaign, from attack ads run by friendly super PACs to the RNC’s get-out-the-vote push. The campaign is legally forbidden from coordinating with independent groups, leaving it at a potential disadvantage at a time when the candidate is trailing in the polls.
The result is that Romney and his allies may have fewer resources than it appears, since much of what they do from here will be more expensive. The lack of direct control by Romney also raises the possibility, however remote, that his allies could abandon him if his chances continue to fade, as happened to Robert J. Dole in October 1996, when the party shifted its efforts to congressional races.
“The difference in ad rates alone could end up being very important,” said Michael Franz, an associate professor at Bowdoin College and a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and analyzes political ad spending. “It’s a critical issue in determining how far each side’s money goes. It looks to be a huge benefit for Obama in the long run.”
A lack of coordination may have contributed to Romney’s problems in recent months: American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and other pro-Romney groups have bombarded swing states with tens of millions of dollars in ads, with little apparent effect on Obama’s trajectory. And the RNC has used up nearly all of the $21.6 million it is allowed to spend under law on coordinated advertising with the Romney campaign, records show.