Fueled by cash from outside political groups, the arms race over political advertising has reached a crescendo in Florida, where more than $133 million has poured into the state since April to finance a record-breaking barrage of television ads.
The presidential race alone has shattered Florida's previous records and nationwide "this election year will go down as a record pulverizing year for political advertising,'' said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project which tracks political ads.
Since June 1, more than 915,000 presidential ads have been aired on broadcast and national cable television across the nation, the group reported last week. That is a 44.5 percent increase over a similar period in 2008 and a 43.7 percent increase over 2004.
What's surprising however, is that the millions spent on advertising in Florida's 10 top media markets in the final week will not be not aimed at persuading voters who to pick in the high stakes presidential contest. Instead the goal is to get people out to vote — and influence media coverage.
That's because the tiny fraction of voters who have not yet decided "are the least informed, least likely to vote,'' said Robyn Kolodny, professor of political science at Temple University who studies political advertising. Media consultants "realize they are throwing some of that money away."
But the drumbeat of political patter offer another advantage, allowing both sides "to keep alive the idea that it's all up for grabs and it's anybody's race to win,'' she said.
"The last thing you want in a battleground state is for your supporters to say your guy has it in the bag, especially if they're going to have to stand in line."
In the first three weeks of October, Obama and his allies had an ad advantage in every media market in Florida except Jacksonville. Romney, his allies and the outside third-party groups that have aided his campaign — such as Americans For Prosperity, American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — aired 2,225 fewer ads in the top three media markets of Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
"One reason Obama has been able to win the air war in most media markets is that his campaign is funding most of its own advertising, which entitles his campaign to the lowest rate charged by local television stations,'' said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "By contrast, many ads supporting Romney are paid for by outside groups, which must pay whatever the market will bear to get their ads on the air."
In the final days, the parade of ads will continue to be heaviest in Tampa and Orlando, where the region's mix of traditional and independent voters usually decides Florida elections. Obama and Democratic-leaning groups ran 4,217 ads in Tampa during the first three weeks of October, 4,719 in Orlando and 3,892 in Miami. Romney and Republican-leaning groups ran 3,775 ads in Tampa, 3,197 in Orlando and 3,631 in Miami, according to an analysis by Kantar Media and the Wesleyan project.
The competitive presidential race is not the only source of advertising. The high stakes U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Congressman Connie Mack IV has drawn more than$10.4 million in political advertising in the first three weeks of October alone. An estimated $20 million in political ads from outside political groups is also expected to fuel the ad war.
Florida also has several competitive congressional races and at least two very tight state Senate races. The result is "the largest election in history as far as television is concerned,'' said Pat Roberts, president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters.
"If you're not a candidate, I don't believe you'll be buying space between now and Election Day,'' he said.
The law requires that television stations allow ads for federal candidates to pre-empt any other advertisers, including third-party groups. Next in priority are state and local candidates.
Candidates are required to pay no more than the lowest price paid by any advertiser in the last 90 days but stations find ways to raises their prices nonetheless, Kolodny said.
Every television station in the state is likely to have staff on hand to help accommodate last minute purchases, Roberts said, but in some cases "if they don't have their buy in by now, it's going to be difficult."
"We are saturated, but we do have inventory,'' said Robert W. Leidner, general manager at WSVN in Miami.
Because Orlando is "ground zero for the presidential campaign, it is "probably the most in-demand market in the nation,'' Roberts said.
SMG Delta, a Republican ad-buying firm, reports a higher number than Kantar, estimating that there has been $174 million in television advertising since the primary. Neither group releases the sources of its data although SMG Delta's data includes radio advertising in addition to television.
Meanwhile, as Florida viewers get bombarded with political ads, television watchers in non-battleground states such as New York and California, Pennsylvania and Texas, are experiencing a lighter stream than in previous years.
"For people living in seven swing states, you're getting a barrage and for everybody else, they're barely aware that the election is considered competitive,'' Kolodney said.
She attributed the shift to refined advertising models, first used by the 2008 Obama campaign, that allows them to better target their voters. Rather than spending ad dollars to buy network ads that reached a broad, national audience, the campaigns focus their ad buys on local markets in states where marginal votes matter and hand-pick their shows.
Obama's cable television ads, for example, are more likely to run on Lifetime and Black Entertainment Television, while Romney's cable television ads are targeted to the Country Music Television, the History Channel and fix-it shows, she said.
For the politics-weary viewers, Kolodny notes, the end is in sight. "On Nov. 7th, all the political ads will be done and the feel-good Febreeze and kitty ads will return,'' she said.