Despite its unprecedented fundraising success, President Bush’s reelection team is scaling back its massive level of television advertising, according to senior Republicans familiar with the campaign’s planning.
In the next few weeks, viewers in the 18 states where the ads have aired since early March will see about 30% fewer a week, one ranking GOP strategist said.
Republicans say that the ad reduction was planned all along and that the commercials succeeded in planting doubts about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry. And they say that although Bush’s overall advertising budget will shrink, more of the ads that air will criticize Kerry.
In the nation’s larger markets, the Bush campaign so far has divided its spending almost in half between ads touting his record and commercials criticizing Kerry, according to tracking conducted for The Times by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Many Democrats are relieved that the race remains so competitive after a Bush ad barrage that appears to have totaled at least $40 million.
Pointing to recent polls that generally show Kerry at least even with the president, these Democrats say the Massachusetts senator has taken what could be the Bush campaign’s hardest punch and is still standing.
The reelection team spent so much so soon “with the intent of putting this thing away early, and it didn’t happen,” said Erik Smith, executive director of the Media Fund, a group formed by leading Democrats that is running ads in support of Kerry.
Independent analysts agreed with that assessment.
Anthony Corrado, an expert on campaign finance at Colby College in Maine, said that since March 4 -- just after Kerry in effect wrapped up his party’s nomination -- Bush has bought about as much television advertising as past presidential candidates purchased for the entire general election campaign.
“And frankly,” Corrado said, the president’s campaign “didn’t move the [poll] numbers that much.”
He added: “The Bush campaign came out heavy, both in terms of volume and with some of their strongest attacks, and they didn’t get a knockout.”
A key factor blunting the ads’ impact, analysts said, was the escalation of violence in Iraq and questions that have surfaced about the administration’s antiterrorism efforts before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Bush has probably scored some points ... but it’s awful hard to cut through events of that magnitude, said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign’s chief strategist, said some analysts had an unrealistic expectation of how much the president’s ads might affect the race. “There was a false assumption ... that you would all of a sudden change everything with a series of ads.”
Dowd said the ads helped Bush rebound from polls in February and early March that showed him trailing Kerry by an average of about of 5 or 6 percentage points.
He also said the ads started to imprint two negative impressions about Kerry -- that he would raise taxes as president and that he flip-flops on key issues, such as the war with Iraq.
Privately, Democrats who have seen party data on public attitudes acknowledge that this portrayal of Kerry has penetrated with some swing voters.
Perhaps most worrisome to Democrats was a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in late March showing that by more than 2 to 1, most Americans believed Kerry was likely to raise their taxes as president.
But extensive polling by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey found that Kerry’s favorability ratio was virtually unchanged from the start of March until its end in the 18 states where the Bush campaign has advertised. And the Bush advertising apparently has done little to affect the president’s standing with the public.
The Annenberg survey found that Bush’s favorability rating in the 18 states did not change during March.
A survey last week by Democratic pollsters Stanley and Anna Greenberg for the Media Fund found that Bush’s job approval rating in the contested states was 51% -- virtually the same as before the advertising began. And a majority of those polled still said the country was moving in the wrong direction, the survey found.
Exactly how much Bush has spent on his television offensive is not yet known.
One gauge is the tracking conducted for by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which follows the political ad purchases in the nation’s 100 largest media markets. Its data show that through Saturday, Bush had aired 37,212 spots in those markets at a cost of $26.6 million.
Looking at all of the country’s media markets, ad analysts for both the Kerry campaign and the Media Fund estimate that Bush will have spent about $45 million on television by the end of this week, with additional amounts devoted to radio.
Sources familiar with planning inside the Bush campaign put the figure at about $40 million, including some future purchases. These sources asked not to be named when discussing the campaign’s operations.
The Bush campaign has raised at least $180 million that it can spend before the president is officially renominated at the GOP convention in early September. That is the most any presidential candidate has collected.
But at the rate the Bush campaign is spending on hiring a staff and building its grass-roots organization, Corrado projects that it would allocate about $90 million through the convention to basic operations.
That would leave at least an equal amount for advertising, and somewhat more as the campaign continues to raise money.
Those figures suggest that the Bush campaign may have spent around 40% of the total available to it for advertising before the convention.
One senior advisor said the Bush campaign had no comment on those calculations.
Corrado said he believed that Kerry’s lead over the president in polls in early March forced the Bush campaign to spend more in its early advertising than its officials initially planned. That spending may have caused them to reduce the amount it will spend in the coming weeks, he said.
The senior GOP strategist countered that the campaign “all along planned” to reduce its ad purchases after the initial burst.
Dowd said the campaign’s ad buying reflects the varying level of attention it believes voters devote to the race at different points.
“The amount of attention that was paid after [early March] and the amount of attention that may be paid in May or June may be vastly different, so your campaign communications ought to reflect that,” he said.
The senior GOP strategist added that because the campaign will shift more of its money toward ads targeting Kerry, Democrats are misreading the situation if they believe he has dodged the biggest threat he will face from the Bush advertising.
Kerry initially had little money to respond to the Bush ad blitz; as of Saturday he had spent about $6.1 million in television commercials in the markets tracked by the TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group. But the Democrat has intensified his fundraising in recent weeks.
Corrado projected Kerry’s campaign could purchase about $30 million in television ads through the Democratic convention in late July. And additional ad purchases by groups such as the Media Fund and the AFL-CIO would bring the anti-Bush advertising level closer to the Republican total.