During the two weeks encompassing the Republican and Democratic conventions, for example, the Obama campaign alone aired 37,230 ads — twice as many as Romney and all his allies put together, according to data from the Wesleyan group. Obama paid an average of about $526 per spot, compared with more than $700 per spot for the GOP side, the data show.
The Obama campaign declined to comment on its media strategy.
Part of the disparity stems from differing strategies, as Republicans tend to favor pricier news and sports programs for their ads while Obama chooses a more varied mix. On KUSA in Denver, Obama paid as little as $100 per spot for some recent daytime slots, while the RNC spent as much as $17,000 for a pair of commercials during a Denver Broncos preseason game, according to Federal Communications Commission records.
‘Lowest unit rate’
Starting several weeks ago, both campaigns gained the ability to obtain radio and TV advertising at the “lowest unit rate,” which is guaranteed to federal candidates within 60 days of an election. The legal requirement means that campaigns — but not parties, nonprofits or super PACs — can commandeer airtime at the cheapest prices.
At the start of September, Romney had about $50 million in his campaign account compared with about $90 million for Obama, who has brought in much of his money in small-dollar contributions. Romney, by contrast, has relied heavily on donors giving up to $75,000, most of which must go to the Republican Party because of legal limits on how much a donor can give to a candidate’s campaign committee.
Outside groups and parties typically pay at least 50 percent more for advertising than candidates do in the final weeks of a national campaign, according to media buyers. Sometimes the gap is wider: One GOP ad buyer said a 30-second slot on “Good Morning America” in Washington will cost a candidate about $2,000, compared with twice that much for an interest group.
Federal candidates also legally receive priority over other clients, meaning they can force regular commercials aside, and they cannot be refused airtime by radio or television stations, regardless of the content.
“When everyone talks about what the media buy is, it’s often very misleading,” said Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising. “Not all dollars are created equal.”
There have been other signs of inflated costs in the Romney operation, which fell behind the Obama campaign in fundraising last month and has significantly higher staff and consulting expenses. Romney doled out more than $200,000 in bonuses to senior staff members in August even as the campaign took out a $20 million loan to get through the month.
Republicans say they will have plenty of resources to compete, both on the air through the Romney campaign and its allies, and in voter-engagement efforts by the RNC.
“We have implemented the gold standard of ground games for this cycle, drawing on the enthusiasm for the Romney-Ryan ticket,” said RNC communications director Sean Spicer. “The RNC’s number one priority this cycle is to put a top-notch army on the ground that will propel us to victory.”
T.W. Farnam and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.