It's become conventional wisdom that President Obama's new lead in the polls is a bounce, coming out of the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.
But an analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project suggests that the bounce might be due to TV ads as much as grand speeches. The Obama campaign and its allies laid out $21.1 million for TV during the two weeks of the party conventions. Over that same stretch, Republican Mitt Romney and his backers spent significantly less, $12.9 million.
With that cash advantage, the Obama campaign bought a better-than 2-to-1 advantage in the number of ads airing in battleground states.
The media project — a joint effort by political scientists at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, Bowdoin College in Maine and the University of Washington — bases its estimates on data from Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks TV ads. The estimates cover broadcast television and national cable.
"We wouldn't want to suggest that the convention, and the national media attention and coverage, may not have been influential," Wesleyan political scientist Erika Franklin Fowler, a co-director of the project, tells NPR. But she adds: "If you have such an advantage on the airwaves, that is also likely to have an effect."
She says President Obama appeared to use TV to counter attacks from the Republican convention and then held that advantage during the Democratic convention.
The project tallies 40,974 ads on behalf of Obama versus 17,779 for Romney. Of the ads for Obama, 91 percent came from the Obama campaign itself — a sign of fundraising strength by the campaign committee and the Democratic National Committee, but also a measure of how badly the Democratic outside groups have fared with big donors.
On the GOP side, the spending was lopsided the other way, with 72 percent of the ads coming from three outside groups that take unregulated contributions: the pro-Romney superPAC Restore Our Future; another pro-GOP superPAC, American Crossroads; and the social welfare organization Americans For Prosperity, backed by the billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. The superPACs disclose their donors. Americans For Prosperity is allowed by law to keep its donors secret.
Another powerful social welfare organization was missing from the presidential race these past two weeks. Crossroads GPS, the heavily funded partner of American Crossroads, under the guidance of strategist Karl Rove, shifted its attention to Senate races. Earlier this summer, it had been the biggest spender on Romney's behalf.
Maybe none of this is news to voters in the Las Vegas, Cleveland and Denver markets. They're the top three targets for both campaigns. The Wesleyan project says that since April, viewers in Las Vegas have been hit with more than 30,000 presidential campaign ads. And those ads are mostly negative.
"We all expected that," says Fowler. But compared with 2008, she says, the Obama team is almost twice as likely to use pure attack ads. And 70 percent of the pro-Romney ads are purely negative, up from 40 percent for John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee.
The Wesleyan project also took the measure of Senate campaigns. The volume leader is Montana, where Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg is trying to unseat first-term Democrat Jon Tester. Data show that Montanans have been exposed to nearly 45,000 Senate campaign ads since June 1.