RICHMOND — President Obama’s campaign bought nine ads to run on Richmond television during an Orioles-Nationals baseball game two Saturdays ago, but there was a hitch: To air all of the ads, they would have needed to run virtually back to back in every commercial break.
The local Fox affiliate balked. “We do our best to spread out our political ads and make sure our viewers don’t feel like they’re bombarded,” said Steve Genett, general manager of WRLH.
Even after the station limited the Obama spots, baseball fans got plenty of politics, with six ads for Obama, one for Republican rival Mitt Romney and one for Democratic Senate candidate Timothy M. Kaine — all shoehorned into six commercial breaks.
The River City is enduring a presidential ad blitz like never before. A place long bypassed by presidential campaigns suddenly has one of the nation’s most heavily saturated local TV markets. More than 140 times on an average day, an ominous voice-over warns Richmond area voters that their president is killing the economy or that Romney helped ship American jobs overseas. With about 1,000 such ads airing per week — unheard of in the state this early in a presidential campaign — the former Confederate capital hasn’t felt so besieged since the Union army was banging on the door.
“It’s late October in July,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. “You have back-to-back commercials, and it’s hard to imagine the election is four months away.”
What the siege will mean for the outcome in November is uncertain. But both campaigns see Virginia as a place where they must drive home their central messages — on the air and in person. For Obama, who visits the Richmond suburbs Saturday as part of a two-day swing through the state, that has meant portraying Romney as “outsourcer-in-chief.” And for Romney, who hit Roanoke and Sterling late last month, that has meant casting the president as someone unable to lead the country out of recession.
The messages do not appear tailored to Virginia, where the state’s 5.5 percent unemployment rate is well below the 8.2 percent national average. “Blunt-force advertising” is how Holsworth described the ads, meaning they are “in keeping with the national message but don’t seem necessarily calibrated to the special circumstances of Virginia.”
But even in Richmond’s suburbs, there is economic anxiety to exploit. The campaigns and their allies seem to be betting that, with enough inundation, they’ll break through.
The strategy could be working on Michael Broadway, 18, who lives with his parents in an upscale townhouse village built around a Whole Foods Market in Henrico County. He isn’t sure who will get his vote — his first. But the ads accusing Romney of outsourcing jobs have caught his attention.
“That’s probably the most interesting one,” said Broadway, who plans to enter J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College this fall fall and is worried about his prospects after graduation. “My parents are conservative, but one of the things that concerns me is outsourcing jobs.”
For two months, Richmond has averaged nearly 1,000 presidential TV spots a week — hitting a high of 1,482 ads during the last week in June, according to the ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG. That’s nearly 10 times the 151 ads that aired here the same time four years ago. And it surpasses the 1,251 spots at the height of that race in October 2008.
“We’re just bombarded with, ‘I’m President Obama and I approve this ad,’ and for that matter, Romney, too,” said Russell Batten, 51, a Republican small-business owner and father of eight in Goochland County.
The same sentiment can be heard inside the Yarn Lounge, a Richmond knitting hangout where clerk Karen Gilman carries a “Knitters for Obama” bag with the candidate’s logo recast as a ball of yarn.
“If I hear one more time, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Obama,’ I told my husband I’m going to go out and buy all new TVs, because I’ll have smashed them,” said Gilman, referring to a Romney ad with a clip of Hillary Rodham Clinton scolding her 2008 primary opponent.
The flurry of ads comes as a shock to Richmond, capital of a state so reliably Republican that presidential campaigns bypassed it for decades. Lots of TV ads helped Obama snap the Democrats’ 40-year losing streak, but only later in the campaign. Republican John McCain lacked money for a counterpunch.
“This time, we’re seeing both,” said Jeff Ryer, spokesman for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus.
Richmond had the most presidential television advertising of any media market in Virginia last week, with 985 spots. Norfolk finished close behind with 979, then Roanoke with 667. Just 180 ads aired in the Washington market.
The campaigns and PACs spent nearly the same amount that week in Richmond and Washington markets — $213,670 in Washington and $232,300 in Richmond — but that bought five times as many ads in Virginia’s capital.
Over the past eight weeks, Norfolk has aired slightly more ads than Richmond, 8,003 spots compared with 7,890. That puts Norfolk at No. 5 and Richmond at No. 6 nationally for the number of presidential ads over that period. Only Las Vegas (10,681), Cleveland (10,317), Denver (9,156) and Orlando (8,207) had more.
“One night on Letterman, I remember every ad was a political ad,” said Ryer, who tunes in Norfolk stations on the six televisions in his Williamsburg home. “It’s just incredible. If it weren’t for the car dealers, I think it would be everything we’re looking at. But thankfully somebody still wants to sell a Ford.”