POLITICS
10/25/2012 08:55 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2012

Obama, Romney Advertising Hits Point Of Diminishing Returns In Final Days

WASHINGTON -- Sensing that voters in his state are fed up with political ads, Ohio Rep. Jim Renacci adopted a novel approach for the final days of his re-election campaign. He canceled $850,000 in advertising on network television to spend the money on grassroots outreach.

At a time when television political ad spending has hit more than $1.84 billion, it seemed like a gamble of sorts for the Republican. Congressional contests are more likely than Senate or presidential campaigns to be altered by broadcast advertising, because of their smaller pool of voters. But according to Renacci’s team, it was a pragmatic decision. At a time when voters are drowning in campaign material, there is a premium on finding other ways to get them motivated.

“Obviously this is uncharted territory, but this is not a conventional situation,” James Slepian, a spokesman for Renacci’s campaign, told The Huffington Post. “Voters have been talking about this for months. They don't even watch the ads anymore -- they fast-forward the ads.”

The diminishing returns the Renacci campaign said it sees is not limited to the Ohio congressional race. Both presidential campaigns are frantically trying to find ways to reach the unengaged, turn out the unenthused, and boost overall support, even by fractions of a percentage point. And unlike elections passed, they now have enough cash to throw almost anything against the wall and see what sticks.

The Romney campaign announced on Thursday that it, along with the Republican National Committee and allied state party organizations, had $169 million to spend on the election's last two weeks. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan continued raising funds in Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia -- none considered a swing state.

But what good will all that money actually do?

As Renacci concluded and as countless political operatives attested, the money being spent so close to the end of a presidential campaign has very little impact.

Both campaigns are aware of this. According to Republican sources, the higher-ups in Romney world are now looking at ways to take ad money that would serve as overkill in saturated states like Florida and apply it in Wisconsin, for example, where a buck might travel farthest. The RNC has scheduled $1.3 million in Badger State ad spending from Oct. 26 to Nov. 5. In fact, for all political entities, spending in Wisconsin jumped from 6 percent of total television advertising during the week of Oct. 8, to 10 percent of total share for the week of Oct. 29.

Still, most campaign operatives interviewed for this article said the airwaves at this point in the race are where campaign money is wasted.

There is "no evidence shows they move voters in presidential races [at this juncture] in last 10 years," said Matthew Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist.

Accordingly, each side is now placing bigger bets on different get-out-the-vote techniques. Rather than just spend money on TV ads, for instance, the Obama campaign is using media in alternative ways. A 30-minute sit-down interview with Jay Leno was followed by a question-and-answer session with Us Weekly. That came after the campaign spent cash robocalling undecided voters in swing states for a teleconference with the president while he was aboard Air Force One.

Voters also are saturated with specific messages. Most, for example, have decided whether Obama has been a good economic steward, so campaigns may be wise to switch subjects. Indeed, both campaigns are gearing up for a sophisticated leaflet campaign that will micro-target communities with different persuasion methods to reach specific voters.

"At this point in the cycle, the low-hanging fruit is going to be among sporadic voters ... and there are a whole host of tactics to reach them," said said Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political director. Strategies include social pressure mail, which makes people feel guilty for not voting, traditional mailers and follow-up phone calls to people who indicate they'll vote to make sure they do.

"Those things tend to be the least expensive operations per vote," Podhorzer said. "TV, at this stage, is incredibly expensive, and I think we have long passed diminishing margins of returns in the Senate and White House races."

And yet, each side is still set to devote tens of millions of dollars to television in the week ahead. According to a private Republican memo, the top 10 Democratic and Republican campaign entities will pay a combined $82.3 million for presidential ads this week. Neither side wants to be first to cease fire despite evidence that the money is best spent elsewhere.

“I don't think campaigns care if voters are sick of ads. They just push the gas pedal to the floor and spend the money that they have,” said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. “There's not a lot of reason to leave [money] in the bank. Even if voters complain, they're subtly influenced by ads, and that's what campaigns are hoping for.”

But that raises another question, one that the Renacci campaign likely confronted. Is there a point when the incessant campaigning actually backfires and voters go beyond being tuned out to being turned off?

Bill McInturff, a preeminent Republican pollster, said he was unaware of any data on the subject, though he said it was a good topic to consider. Podhorzer speculated that there could, indeed, be a boomerang effect.

"There is behavioral research on looking at whether that may be happening," Podhorzer explained. "But the general opinion there is that when you do an ad that is demonstrably and easily refuted by your opponent's supporters, you are actually helping your opponent -- that they look at it and say, Barack Obama is not a Muslim. He was born in the United States and it makes it more likely for them to vote for Obama and strengthens their relationship to him."

The Huffington Post posed the question of when advertising saturation may backfire to the top ranks of the Obama campaign several months ago, in an attempt to gauge how they would handle the campaign homestretch. They shrugged.

"The truth is we are in uncharted territory that nobody knows," a top Obama adviser said.

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