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A Huge Haul For TV In Final Colorado Election Day Ad Blitz

Jim Hill

How many political ads did Colorado see in the final sprint to Election Day? Almost $41 million and enough TV ads to fill more than 12 days of airtime, 24 hours a day.

That’s the political advertising tally at Denver’s top four stations based on contracts filed between Aug. 2 and Nov. 14. The CU News Corps entered data on the contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission and analyzed them throughout the fall campaign.

President Barack Obama’s election victory in Colorado reflected a dominance of the airwaves in the Denver market as well.

In the end, Obama’s campaign contracted for $10.3 million and 10,616 ads starting Aug. 2, compared with GOP opponent Mitt Romney’s $6.1 million and 4,848 ads.

Super PACs supporting Romney narrowed the ad difference, with five spending almost $7.7 million on Denver ads, compared with three Democratic-leaning groups spending $3.9 million on Obama’s behalf.

2012 set a record for the total number of political ads aired, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which used privately collected data to examine ad spending nationally. Denver ranked as one of the top markets for presidential ad spending nationally.

Super PAC ad spending potentially kept Romney and other Republican candidates competitive, said Michael Franz, co-director for the Wesleyan Media Project and a political science professor at Bowdoin College.

"They didn't really win anything that they were hoping to win," Franz said of the GOP super PACs. "We don't know what the races would have looked like if those ads were not on the air."

Obama’s buy-early tactic also may have been a factor.

By early September, the Obama camp had scheduled ads every week through Election Day, while the Romney campaign made week-to-week buys. That strategy proved economical, with the Obama campaign paying $969 on average for spots compared with an average of $1,251 for the Romney campaign.

“The Romney campaign going from week to week, it allowed them to be a bit more nimble, but it also meant that their dollars didn't go as far," Franz said.

The economy turned out to be a reliable predictor of the election outcome, said Seth Masket, a University of Denver associate professor of political science.

“That doesn't mean that the ads didn't matter, though,” Masket wrote in an email.  “Ads are designed to get people to think about the economy, or other issues, in certain ways, and they get voters to use their feelings about the economy when they cast their votes.”

For many viewers, however, the onslaught of political ads didn’t make a huge difference.

"This year's political ads made me sad and frustrated,” said Joan Ringle, a Denver resident who voted for Obama. “They have no effect on my choices. I wish we as voters made our choices on policy substance rather than talking points that at best are an exaggeration and at worst is lies."

Franz said the election outcome might motivate conservative donors to look at alternative ways to spend their money in the future.

"One of the things that will probably be reconsidered is whether or not it's worth spending money on other types of electioneering, whether it is ground mobilization, peer-to-peer contact, Internet outreach, things that are cheaper, things that the research suggests might have longer term effects," Franz said.


Some details on contracts between political campaigns and the top four Denver TV stations filed on Aug. 2 and after.

Largest single contracts: Obama for American paid $557,225 for 770 ads [.pdf] to run on KMGH between Oct. 2 and Nov. 6.  The Romney campaign paid $407,620 for 199 ads [.pdf] on KCNC between Oct. 31 and Nov. 6.

Top station: KUSA contracted for more than $15 million of the advertising haul, most likely because of the station’s top ranking for local news and Sunday night football games. KCNC came in second with $10.6 million, reflecting the station’s Sunday Broncos coverage. KMGH contracted for $9.6 million, while KDVR, the Fox affiliate, contracted for $5.5 million.

Most expensive ad: A two-minute, $104,000 spot by Obama before the Sept. 30 Bronco’s game on KCNC. The Republican National Committee spent $55,000 on a 30-second spot advocating for Romney during the Nov. 4 Broncos game [.pdf] on KCNC.

Cheapest buy: Obama and other Democratic candidates paid $25 for 30-second spots on super-early morning spots on KMGH and KUSA. By super-early, we’re talking 4 a.m. 

A single ad: Women Speak Out PAC spent $24,000 on a single, one-minute ad opposing Obama and abortion [.pdf] on KUSA before the Oct. 3 presidential debate.

The CU News Corps is a class in Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Colorado aimed at providing student-produced news stories to Colorado and national media outlets. The Public Insight Network was used to find sources for this story; the University of Colorado Journalism & Mass Communication program is an academic partner of PIN, which is operated by American Public Media.

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