Candidates' different advertising structures reflect their differing government philosophies

“In 2004, George W. Bush was the first sitting president to be outspent on TV by the other party,” KantarMedia CMAG vice president Elizabeth Wilner wrote yesterday. But “[i]n 2012, Romney will be the first nominee to be out-advertised by members of his own.”

While this results from some of the unintended consequences of federal election campaign laws, it also parallels the different candidates’ beliefs regarding governance.

Obama campaign: centralized

The Obama campaign, according to Wilner, is even more top-down and centralized than the traditional party-dominated campaign model.

Not having to compete in primaries freed up all the Obama money for the general campaign, letting Team Obama get into the fray early – and hard.

“Obama’s campaign has internalized most of the advertising responsibilities traditionally held by a national party committee,” Wilner notes. “The upshot…is that the party’s role has been de-emphasized.”

The early start let them plan in advance and in detail in which markets, on which stations, on which days and at what times Obama commercials would air, leaving only the specific content of commercials without advance planning (but still very much subject to centralized control).

It also saved them money in two ways: First, because federal law requires that stations sell official candidates’ campaigns air time at the lowest available rates. And second, because the farther out you make the buy, the lower the demand for air time and the lower those lowest rates are.

Romney campaign: free market

The Romney campaign, by contrast, had a long, dry summer. Between April, when he cinched the nomination until late August, when he officially received it, Romney was restricted by federal law from using money raised for the general campaign.

So the free market had to step in.

Despite a barrage of negative Obama advertising, it was buys and commercials from four outside groups – American Crossroads, Restore Our Future, Crossroads GPS  and Americans for Prosperity – that kept both candidates within most polls’ margins of error until September.

“These groups kept the race tight for four months and, for the most part, continue to boost Romney today,” Wilner concludes.

They’ve also helped shape both campaigns’ political geography, she explains:

With the super groups able to advertise in states that may be more of a reach for one side or the other, the nominees’ campaigns have now been able to focus on just nine states all the way up until mere days before Election Day, without having to decamp from any of them. In the olden days of 2004 and 2008, late October typically brought tough decisions about pulling ad spend from some states in order to shore up others. In 2012, the campaigns have the luxury of not having to make those decisions.

This tiered approach — with campaigns focusing on states fully in play and super groups taking on the rest — has resulted in a 2012 presidential advertising battlefield that has stayed remarkably stable and compact. On October 19, 2008, 112 markets saw presidential advertising on broadcast TV. Four years later, that number was cut nearly in half: 61 markets saw presidential advertising on broadcast TV on October 19.

This decentralization of control brings with it a decentralization of message:

Not only will [those four groups] have spent far more on TV than Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign when all’s said and done…but it’s safe to bet they will have aired significantly more spots than the Romney campaign, a relinquishing of message control never before seen from any presidential nominee. [Emphasis added.]

This diversity of message is an unintended consequence of federal prohibitions against coordination between candidates’ campaigns and outside groups which raise money and run advertising on the candidates’ behalf.

As a result, the law in effect encourages outside groups to create their own messages, try and test different approaches, and cover more bases than a top-down candidate campaign could ever produce or even think of.

It’s an almost perfect case of turning a lemon into lemonade.

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