WASHINGTON -- As Mitt Romney looks to make up ground in swing state polls, an ad-buying strategy formed early in the campaign may limit how far his war chest goes.
The Romney campaign is purchasing television slots on a week-to-week basis instead of reserving airtime in bulk and further in advance when prices are lower. This is by design, an aide said.
"Our media buying pattern allows us more flexibility," said the Romney aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Noting that it allows the campaign to move resources to certain locations when needed, the aide added that "the Obama campaign places a buy and then may peel it back [or] change it."
But the strategy comes at a cost. According to Michael Franz, the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project that researches political advertising in the top 2012 races, the price differential between week-to-week and long-term purchases can be significant.
"Just like if you shop at Sam's Club, you're going to get a bulk discount," Franz said. "If you're buying week-to-week, you're competing with the supply coming in from Super PACs and perhaps House and Senate candidates. That just means that the broadcast station can drive the price up. But if you've already bought a block, you've paid for it and it's already established, then you're probably going to get a cheaper rate."
Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chair and governor of Mississippi, recently suggested that Romney's campaign was hurting itself by relying on weekly ad purchases in swing states.
"I'm not privy to all the details," Barbour said, when asked by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham during an Oct. 2 interview how Obama outspent Romney three to one on ads in Ohio during September. "But it has been reported that because Romney has been buying his television ads week-by-week and has waited late to do it. He's having to buy higher rates. And that's how the system works. If you are early, the rates are lower. The more you wait, the more demand and just like supply and demand of any product, rates go up."
The Obama campaign, in contrast, purchased ads in monthly packages far ahead of time in order to get lower prices, a spokesperson said. Advertising watchers have noticed the results.
"Obama has been able to control his resources a bit more easily," Franz said. "He could buy in month blocks, if that's what he is doing, more easily. Romney, on the other hand, wasn't able to spend his general election money until after the convention and may not have known in advance how much money he would have moving into the general election, so he may have been forced to buy in smaller increments."
Given that Romney secured the nomination in May, at least one Democratic media buyer thought it was curious that he had not made large, long-term ad purchases in must-win states like Ohio and Florida.
"It's all about planning out appropriately where you think you're going to be and planning out your budget according to what you think you're going to have," the buyer told HuffPost. "There's no advantage to an incumbent over a challenger in that process."
An examination of the contracts signed by both campaigns with broadcast television outlets in swing states, including Ohio and Colorado, show that Romney missed out by not planning further in advance.
According to Federal Communications Commission data on ABC's affiliate in Cincinnati, the Obama campaign pursued a dual strategy -- securing a large quantity of ad slots early when the price was lower, and supplementing it with weekly buys.
By Sept. 20, Obama had locked in more than 400 ad slots for the three weeks leading up to the election, including airtime for 137 spots on the ABC channel from Oct. 30 to Nov. 6. By September's end, the campaign also had signed week-to-week contacts to add 395 slots on the Cincinnati ABC station for Oct. 1 to Oct. 15. Thus far, the Romney campaign has only purchased ads, on a weekly basis, on the station through Oct. 9.
By moving quickly, the president secured 'first-mover' status on the station's airwaves. Because that allows his account more power in negotiations, he could benefit as Election Day approaches.
"The first candidate to go in is usually the last one to get kicked out and the last one to get bumped up to higher rates to keep their schedule intact," the media buyer said. "So there is an advantage to placing earlier."
Current regulations dictate that candidates are granted lowest unit prices during the 60 days before the election. A campaign will receive a rebate if it buys an ad spot for a higher price than another advertiser pays, a Romney aide said.
The lowest unit rate went into effect on Sept. 7. Nearly a month before, on Aug. 10, the Obama campaign purchased more than 700 ad spots from the beginning of October through Election Day on the local NBC affiliate in Denver. (At the start of October, Obama reserved an additional 317 spots at a cost of more than $400,000.)
The Romney campaign has instead purchased television slots on both the Cincinnati ABC and Denver NBC affiliates in weekly contracts signed close to air time, according to the FCC records. The earliest contract that it signed with the Denver station was dated Sept. 21 -- two weeks after the lowest unit rate went into effect.
Obama has aimed a large portion of his advertising at daytime coverage and less expensive shows. That means looking to "Judge Judy" and re-runs of "The Big Bang Theory" instead of concentrating all of the ads during the primetime news hour, The Washington Post reported.
Romney, who has less money to spend in the closing weeks, is looking to get an assist from outside groups. But only candidates pay the lowest unit rate for ad slots purchased within the 60-day window. Under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, independent groups do not enjoy that advantage, meaning that Romney-backing super PACs have to spend more to Obama's campaign.
The disparity is seen in ad spending on Sept. 25 in the Denver market. Obama picked up an ad slot for $700 during one of the NBC affiliate's 4 p.m. newscasts, but it cost Karl Rove's super PAC American Crossroads $1,300 to run a commercial during the same hour, according to contracts in the FCC database.