The day before the election, President Obama will be running ads during Cleveland ABC affiliate WEWS-TV’s 11:35 p.m. showing of ‘Nightline’ for only $250 for a 30-second slot. By contrast, American Crossroads, an anti-Obama super PAC, will pay $1,000 for a same-length ad in the same time slot.
Crossroads is paying $600 for ads to run this week during the 4:30 a.m. slot, but Mr. Obama’s campaign was only charged $40 for the same period. During “Good Morning Cleveland,” which runs 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., Crossroads is paying 16 times what the Obama campaign is.
The difference in rates — which could prove a major, if hidden, advantage for the president over GOP rival Mitt Romney — is a result of long-standing federal law that requires broadcasters to offer candidates the lowest market rate for ads to prevent favoritism. Outside groups, which emerged en masse only this year, get no such billing advantage, and are subject to the traditional market rates.
And thanks to Republicans’ heavier reliance on outside groups — including the Republican National Committee (RNC), to which much of the money Mr. Romney has raised from wealthy donors has actually gone — the massive markup stands to seriously undercut any cash advantage that Republicans have.
“We didn’t say ‘no’ to anybody. It was purely supply and demand, and some of the issue-advertisers paid an extremely high premium for the inventory,” Michael O'Brien, the station’s vice president of sales, said of outside groups.
“It will vary: Three, four, five or more” times the rate for candidates, he said.
As of Oct. 1, the RNC had $77 million more than the Democratic National Committee, but the Obama campaign had $36 million more than the Romney campaign. That means the higher prices for television ads — a campaign’s largest expense — are enough to effectively wipe out Mr. Romney’s money lead.
Mr. Romney has matched totals to the small-donor-fueled Obama campaign by relying on donations of up to $75,000 to his “Victory Fund” to boost his totals, but only $2,500 of those contributions can be used for his campaign. The rest goes to parties, and at that higher rate, that means $72,500 might only buy the equivalent of $18,125 in ad spots.
In other words, outside spending, brought into the mainstream by 2010 court rulings, can still affect elections, but only if the wealthy people, businesses and unions are willing to spend their money very inefficiently.
“A number equals a number — unless it doesn’t. What’s more interesting is what it buys,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s inefficient, unless money is no object. To a billionaire, efficiency may not be their top priority.”
In the early days of the campaign, when the Romney super PAC Restore Our Future vanquished fellow GOP rivals such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, there was little disparity between the discounted and market rates. But in the weeks before the election, with the stations that matter most flooded with requests for ad time, the gap has risen daily.
(Click here for a larger version of WEWS’ political ad schedule)
The Cleveland station, WEWS-TV, alone has sold 20,000 ads worth $25 million from 32 different political groups between August and the election, an analysis by The Washington Times found.
The 6 a.m. “Good Morning Cleveland” program in one week ran 185 political ads, enough to fill 181/2 minutes of the one-hour broadcast each weekday, costing $115,000. The 5 o’clock news program was almost as crowded, at 173 ads, and more expensive, at $200,000.
The state is not just a presidential battleground, but is seeing an expensive race between Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel, the Ohio state treasurer.
WEWS-TV is far from an outlier: It has had the 12th-most ad buys in the country, and Cleveland ranks only 12th among the nation’s largest media markets in ad buys.
Mr. O'Brien said despite rules requiring candidates to get the same rate as “our favorite advertiser,” the crush of political ads is a boon for stations because the demand drives up the rate for those advertisers, too.
“The rules are the rules, but a high tide raises all boats,” he said.