People watching the debate on television Wednesday may have seen Mitt Romney dominate the first presidential debate, but President Barack Obama has had the upper hand on the tube throughout the rest of the campaign, according to a new analysis.
Obama and his Super PAC aired more than twice as many commercials as Romney and his official allies did in September, according to an analysis of Kantar Media data by Wesleyan Media Project. Even in a record spending month for outside groups—which lean heavily conservative and spent $200 million in September, according to the Sunlight Foundation—the Obama campaign aired 10,000 more TV ads than Romney and the biggest conservative groups combined.
Obama's advertising domination is not a recent phenomenon. Since April, the president has spent $164 million, running nearly three times as many ads as Romney. Conservative groups have considerably narrowed Obama's ad advantage, but when all outside groups are counted, Democrats have still run 35,000 more ads than Republicans.
Obama's TV advantage is striking considering he is essentially running against two opponents.
One is his official opponent: The Romney campaign, his Super PAC, and the Republican National Committee. This opponent has aired nearly 220,000 commercials since April. The other is Romney's conservative calvary: Karl Rove's Crossroads groups, the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity, and a number of less prolific groups. This shadow campaign has aired 125,000 anti-Obama ads on its own. For comparison's sake, Obama's biggest unofficial ally has run less than 2,000 ads.
TV commercials are often seen as among the most effective ways to reach and sway potential voters, which bodes well for the president, says Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
"Races aren't won solely by political ads, but if you run more ads than your opponent, that may buy you a percentage of the vote," Ridout says. "Maybe that's why we're seeing Obama leading in the polls in so many of these swing states."
Advertising is also a good way to determine where the race is closest, or which areas the campaigns believe to be the most important to their chances, Ridout says.
Each square represents 1,000 commercials aired, rounded to the nearest 500 commercials. Red squares represent Romney campaign ads, blue squares Obama campaign ads.
1. Denver, Colo.
2. Las Vegas, Nev.
3. Cleveland, Ohio
4. Tampa, Fla.
5. Washington, D.C.
6. Orlando, Fla.
7. Columbus, Ohio
8. Cincinnati, Ohio
9. Reno, Nev.
10. Norfolk, Va.
11. Colorado Springs, Colo.
12. Grand Juncion, Colo.
13. Toledo, Ohio
14. Richmond, Va.
15. Fort Myers, Fla.
"The campaigns won't show us internal polls, but if we see they're putting thousands of ads into Denver, we know they think Colorado is a really close state." says Ridout. "[The campaigns] are concentrating their ad buys in fewer media markets in fewer states than in 2008 especially. The poor people in basically eight swing states are just seeing a barrage of ads that the rest of the country isn't really seeing."
Going by advertising rates alone, the candidates seem to value Florida, Colorado, and Ohio the most. The television markets that received the most presidential attention all came from just four states: Florida, Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia.
Seth Cline is a reporter for U.S. News and World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.