In Ohio, Mitt Romney pitched his candidacy to women voters watching Hollywood starlets sashaying in floor-length gowns on the Academy Awards red carpet. In Florida, his commercials ran during breaks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and episodes of the soap opera “General Hospital.”
The ads paid off, as women voters helped deliver Romney’s one-point victory over Rick Santorum in Ohio and solidify the former Massachusetts governor’s lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
“The sheer volume of it may feel like it’s being done with a shotgun approach, but a good media buy is really more like a thousand rifle shots with every one of them specifically aimed,” said Todd Harris, a Republican media consultant who worked in 2000 on Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign and isn’t affiliated with a candidate this cycle. “It’s clear that if you’re buying on Dr. Phil and the red carpet show and things like that, you’re trying to talk to women.”
Romney, 64, and Restore Our Future, an independent political action committee supporting him, accounted for 61 percent of the 84,755 Republican presidential broadcast ads that aired in eight of the early primary states, according to data compiled by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.
Almost All Negative
Other findings: Four of every five ads by the candidates and super-PACs were negative in tone. Just 7.4 percent of the entire ad load appeared in prime time -- some of the most expensive and effective slots available on TV.
Texas Representative Ron Paul took second place in number of spots and money spent on advertising by the candidates -- an advantage that disappears when super-PACs supporting his rivals are added in the count. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania U.S. senator, and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich were able to more than double their ad presence thanks to super-PACs.
The CMAG data included broadcast television and national cable ads purchased through March 5 by Romney, Paul, Santorum, Gingrich and their super-PAC backers in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Ohio.
The Romney campaign alone spent an estimated $12.2 million on broadcast TV ads through March 7, CMAG shows -- more than four times the second-highest ad buyer, Paul.
Outside the Box
“It allows you to get outside the normal places people see political ads if you’ve got that kind of money,” said Will Feltus, vice president of research for National Media Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia. Feltus was a Romney media strategist during his 2008 Republican primary bid.
Romney aired ads during talk shows such as “The View” and “Dr. Phil.” He had 508 spots during “The Young and the Restless,” “General Hospital” and other soap operas. He placed ads in entertainment shows -- ones that highlight fashion trends like those seen on the red carpet -- more than 700 times. Those kinds of shows attract female viewers, Feltus said.
The three-hour Academy Awards red carpet show attracted as many as 24 million viewers, 64 percent of them women, according to the information gathered by Nielsen Holdings NV, a media information company based in New York. “Dr. Phil” has about 4 million viewers nationwide, and three out of four people watching are women, according to Nielsen.
Favored Dr. Phil
Dr. Phil McGraw’s talk show is one of the more popular among Republican viewers, Feltus said, noting the host’s Southern accent and family-values themes.
The strategy translated into exit polls showing Romney is performing disproportionately well with women.
While men favored Santorum, 53, over Romney by 1 percentage point in Ohio on Super Tuesday this week, women picked Romney over Santorum by 3 percentage points, helping him eke out a victory with 37.9 percent compared to 37.1 percent.
Romney dominated his competitors among women voters in Florida, which he won after fighting off a Gingrich resurgence following the former speaker’s South Carolina victory. Fifty-two percent of women chose Romney and 28 percent picked Gingrich -- a wider gulf than the 5-percentage-point difference separating men who voted for Romney versus Gingrich.
“That’s part of the larger advantage Romney has,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist based in Washington. “It manifests itself in Ohio or Florida, where he’s been able to come back from a deficit in part by really ramping up advertising.”
Women are watching more television than men, Feltus said, so it could be that Romney’s success with women voters is a reflection of his larger ad buys, not any specific targeting the campaign is doing. Andrea Saul, Romney’s spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Non-advertising factors also could be at play: Santorum has risked alienating some women by voicing his religious objections to the use of birth control and Gingrich, 68, has divorced two wives after affairs with younger women.
As the contests move to Mississippi, Alabama and Kansas, Romney is in place to continue his ad-war dominance even if he doesn’t rack up as many delegates there as his competitors.
Romney and Restore Our Future had spent at least $1.6 million on broadcast network ads in those states through March 7, CMAG estimates. Winning Our Future, which supports Gingrich, had spent an estimated $357,000. The pro-Santorum Red, White and Blue Fund said yesterday it would invest at least $500,000 in the two Southern states.
“When it comes to the ad war, this primary season is phenomenally one-sided,” said Ken Goldstein, president of CMAG. “It’s not typical for one candidate to have such a huge advantage.”
Santorum and Gingrich, the two candidates vying to become the chief alternative to Romney, have complained about the onslaught of ads attacking them.
The data bear that out: More than 96 percent, or 27,834, of Restore Our Future’s 28,906 spots have been negative in tone, according to CMAG. Meanwhile, the Red, White and Blue Fund and pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future have been on the air a combined 14,866 times.
Florida saw the highest spot count of any primary so far. Gingrich, coming off a win in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, benefited from a $5 million infusion of cash to Winning Our Future from supporter Sheldon Adelson, a casino billionaire. The former Georgia congressman and Romney, and their respective super-PACs, engaged in a localized ad-war. Romney won the Jan. 31 primary.
The Following Silence
“The thing you noticed was the silence afterward,” said Cindy Graves, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women. She said she couldn’t recall any memorable ad. “It was such a barrage. Just buckets and buckets of negative,” she said.
It’s harder to reach Republicans than Democrats through television ads, said Feltus. He researched voter TV habits as a media strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, letting the president identify specific targeted viewer groups.
Republican candidates should be aiming for prime time, weekend air time and sports -- particularly collegiate sports, Feltus said. An analysis of 2010 prime time programs showed that “NCIS: Los Angeles,” a crime drama starring LL Cool J; “Survivor,” a reality show in its 24th season; and the “Biggest Loser,” a weight-loss-themed reality game show, are among the best bets for reaching Republicans in prime time, Feltus said.
Good Guys, Bad Guys
“Good-guy-bad-guy shows are big with Republicans,” Feltus said. “NCIS is a perennial hit.”
Saturday college football and Sunday National Football League games also are ideal Republican targets, he said.
Romney bought more football time than the other three candidates, paying for 322 ad placements during games and their pre- and post-game shows. Two spots Romney aired Jan. 22, before and after the Baltimore Ravens against the New England Patriots American Football Conference championship, were the costliest slots that any of the four candidates bought, CMAG shows. Costing at least $36,000 apiece, each was more than three times what Santorum, Gingrich or Paul usually paid for a single spot.
Romney was on the air during college basketball, including throughout the afternoon Jan. 28 on a Tallahassee Fox station that carried Wake Forest at Clemson and Virginia Tech at Maryland. The candidates didn’t forget about so-called “NASCAR dads”, airing 93 ads during races -- including the rain-delayed Daytona 500 -- which was held the day before the Arizona and Michigan primaries.
In the heat of a primary campaign, when certain states emerge unexpectedly as being important, it isn’t easy to plan out a comprehensive television strategy, Feltus said.
Step one of a typical political advertising strategy is to buy up time around the local news, which has a dedicated viewership of likely voters, said Goldstein of CMAG.
Gingrich and Paul each aired about three-quarters of their ads during news programs. Romney ran 65 percent of his ads during the news, and Santorum invested 52 percent of his ad purchases during such programs.
In total, 55,346 advertisements ran around news programs in the early primary states. The three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, each captured about 30 percent of the ad buys, with most of the remaining spots airing on Fox and smaller amounts on the CW and Univision, a Spanish-language channel.
Sinking so much money into news shows might not make the most sense, Feltus said. “You’re reaching a limited group of people over and over again -- people who are going to see your spot 20 times in a week, which is too many times,” he said.