Romney campaign’s TV ad strategies criticized in election postmortems

Every four years, Post photographers tail the presidential candidates as they campaign across the states. This year, Melina Mara followed Mitt Romney while Nikki Kahn took on President Obama. (Produced by May-Ying Lam, photos by Melina Mara and Nikki Kahn, music by Podington Bear/The Washington Post)
December 11, 2012

Senior Republican campaign operatives who gathered over beer last week in Alexandria for a post-election briefing were taken aback by what they were told. A nonpartisan research firm presented data showing that President Obama had far outperformed Mitt Romney in managing the largest single expenditure of the campaign: television advertising.

Romney’s spending decisions on advertising look like “campaign malpractice,” said one person who had reviewed the newly circulated data.

Obama and his allies spent less on advertising than Romney and his allies but got far more — in the number of ads broadcast, in visibility in key markets and in targeting critical demographic groups, such as the working class and younger voters in swing states. As the presidential race entered its final, furious phase, for example, millions of college football fans tuning in to televised games saw repeated ads for Obama but relatively few from the Romney campaign.

All told, from June through Election Day, the Obama campaign and its allies aired about 50,000 more ads than Romney and his allies, according to the research firm’s data.

“The Obama guys put more lead on the target and were buying their bullets cheaper,” said an attendee at the briefing, Will Feltus, a senior vice president at National Media, the firm that represented Romney in 2008 and President George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection effort.

President Obama’s advertising advantage

That contrast is among a series of revelations creating a stir in recent days as GOP consultants conduct postmortem meetings to review what went wrong in Romney’s surprisingly lopsided loss. To some Republicans, the ad-buying strategy reflected other problems with the campaign, including an insular nature that left it closed to advice from the outside. Romney campaign officials rejected the criticism.

Interviews with Obama campaign officials as well as independent analysts show that the Obama team, in carrying out its ad strategy, took advantage of discount rates and used sophisticated buying techniques and precision targeting to make the most-effective buys.

Romney not only paid more for his ads but also missed crucial opportunities to advertise, for instance during the political conventions and on Spanish-language television, according to the campaign officials and analysts. Spending by super PACs — such as Restore Our Future, set up by former Romney campaign officials — compensated for some of the advertising shortfall, but even with those expenditures the Obama campaign had a clear advantage.

“Obama’s quality and quality control beat out quantity of dollars spent” by Romney, said Elizabeth Wilner of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a nonpartisan organization that monitors ad spending.

Retrospective criticism of losing campaigns is a tradition in Washington. But charges of profligacy and poor management take on particular meaning in Romney’s case because of his reputation as the tough-minded, data-driven founder of Bain Capital, the highly successful private-equity firm.

Romney campaign officials dismiss the criticism, saying they managed well, watched spending closely and pursued an independent advertising strategy intended to save on overhead and commissions.

“We had in place a process to be sure that the dollars we were spending per demographic group and per voter were attractive,” said Darrell Crate, Romney’s campaign treasurer. “We were careful and deliberate and used a whole set of metrics so that we knew exactly what we were buying and would pay only what was fair and reasonable.” He said the effort was similar to the Obama campaign’s.

Democrats and some Republican operatives say a different story emerged from comparative advertising data assembled by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a division of Kantar Media. The organization provided data to both political parties and the media, including The Washington Post.

Presentations made by the group’s president, Ken Goldstein, show that Obama outpaced Romney in several advertising categories, including many considered critical to winning in swing states. For instance, Romney ads were far less visible on Spanish-language television. The organization said Obama ran 13,232 spots on Spanish-language TV stations, compared with 3,435 for Romney.

Also, between Oct. 22 and 29, Obama and his main campaign ally, the Priorities USA Action super PAC, aired more commercials in most of the top media markets despite being outspent by the Romney campaign and its main ally, the Restore Our Future super PAC, by about 30 percent.

“It is puzzling that people with such talent could produce such disappointing results,” said Marc Wolpow, a former partner of Romney’s at Bain Capital who now runs his own firm in Boston.

Romney is known as an ardent competitor. After starting Bain Capital in 1984, he quickly built a reputation for producing impressive returns based on a strong commitment to rigorous research and analysis. Famously frugal and careful, Romney was so insistent on playing devil’s advocate in business meetings at Bain that his longtime partner, Bob White, told the Boston Globe he sometimes felt like punching Romney in the nose.

Four years ago, Romney and Obama both relied on outside, independent media consulting firms to place and produce television ads, the biggest single cost of any national campaign. In the 2012 election cycle, however, Romney changed the organizational chart. To purchase ads and other services, his campaign set up American Rambler, a closely held business entity named for the iconic car produced decades ago by American Motors, the firm led by the candidate’s father. American Rambler contracted for major expenditures, sometimes picking top campaign officials or their firms as contractors.

For example, Rambler provided compensation to Romney advisers Eric Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers, Stuart Stevens and Russell Schriefer, campaign officials have said. One top vendor to the campaign, Targeted Victory, was co-founded by Romney digital director Zac Moffatt. It received $64 million for online advertising services, federal election records show. The firm has had a contract with the campaign since 2009.

“Unfortunately, the Romney campaign ended up having to pay more money than they would have if they had used an outside agency,” Feltus said. His agency had the contract with Romney in 2008.

Crate, the Romney campaign treasurer, rejects the criticism of how the Romney effort structured its advertising effort. “The folks that were providing services were chosen for their expertise and competence. Contracts were negotiated in ways that were fair and reasonable.” The campaign took special care to review spending, he said. “Operational controls were in place over all spending,” Crate said.

Obama stuck with the organizational structure he deployed in 2008, relying on Washington-based GMMB for ad production, placement and viewer research data. Nearly half of the campaign’s budget went to the firm, which is run by Democratic consultant Jim Margolis, who was media adviser to Bill Clinton.

In 2012, Margolis said he assigned 25 to 30 people to research the most efficient and effective advertising slots. They relied on merging data from Nielsen and other television rating services with consumer and campaign-produced voter data.

Schriefer, a Romney senior strategist, said the campaign also used sophisticated data and consumer information in making ad-buying decisions. But he said Obama’s financial edge let the Democrats buy more ads.

Steven Law, president of the conservative super PAC American Crossroads, said he was so impressed with the way Obama campaign managed its advertising that he stopped Margolis at a recent conference to inquire more about the Democrats’ 2012 system.

“It is really important for Republicans to learn from this,” Law said. “We need to go forward and enhance our own development of data and analytics to enable campaigns and outside groups like ours to do that kind of targeting.”

Karen Tumulty and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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