A train spewing money hurtles along a track, in a scene set to a soaring operatic score. A cliff is revealed. Just before the locomotive plummets, the screen goes black and text appears: “Forward? Don’t let Obama’s failed policies go forward. Vote for Mitt Romney for president”
There’s only one place that television viewers could have seen this low-budget commercial, paid for by a Chicago dentist who backed Hillary Clinton: Cleveland.
William DeJean’s two spots -- another one mocks Bill Clinton for his support of President Barack Obama -- are part of a menagerie of 89 different presidential advertisements on Ohio television stations, more than in any other state.
It would take about 80 days of nonstop viewing to see all 58,235 of the typically 30-second Ohio presidential advertisements that have aired in the last month. New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG compiled for Bloomberg the presidential ads on broadcast TV in Ohio between Sept. 24 and Oct. 24.
Some 17 outside groups have added their voices to the presidential race in Ohio, often with off-beat ads such as an anti-Obama jingle and a home-spun warning about socialism delivered by a Hungarian-born billionaire. The candidates themselves have carved up the Buckeye State to deliver dozens of region-specific messages, talking to coal miners in the Ohio River Valley and factory workers in Cincinnati.
“Ohio is a petri dish,” said Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of CMAG. “There is an incredibly fine-tuned battle going on for the state.”
Cleveland to Clarksburg
Cleveland is Ohio’s top market for presidential ads, racking up about 12,000 in the past 30 days. Statewide, the messages reached into every city and town, even Clarksburg, population 455. And they were on around the clock. Democratic groups and Obama bought the largest amount of their airtime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., while Romney and the Republicans tended to target earlier viewers, beginning at 5 a.m.
Just one of these commercials is enough to make George Groves leave the room, or at least fumble for the remote to change the channel. Even then, Groves said, he can’t escape because often the station he switches to is running another political pitch.
“The ones that come back-to-back-to-back are really annoying,” the 60-year-old driver said in an interview after casting his early absentee ballot at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati.
The attack ads in particular make Naomi McDonald want to assault her TV.
“It’s just them trying to slam the other one,” the 65-year-old retired secretary said in a telephone interview from her home in New Carlisle, near Dayton.
The advertising tidal wave into Ohio is part of what Ken Goldstein, president of CMAG, estimates will be at least a $1 billion nationwide tab for presidential broadcast ads.
Fueling the spending: Both candidates funded their general-election campaigns with private contributions rather than the more limited public-financing dollars, and 2010 court decisions that unleashed outside groups such as super-political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited sums to back their preferred candidates.
DeJean chose Ohio for his $7,000 ad buy because “I couldn’t afford all of the states,” he said in a telephone interview.
“The pundits say Ohio is the most important place for Romney to win,” he said, adding he thinks he set foot in the state once, as a small boy. The ads ran a dozen times at the end of September.
He said he’ll consider buying more air time if he believes he can help Romney. “But I’ll have to consult my bank account first,” he said.
Others are willing to fill the silence. Thomas Peterffy, a Hungarian-born billionaire and president of Interactive Brokers Group Inc., began financing his own anti-Obama ad campaign Oct. 10 in Columbus and Milwaukee, as well as on national cable. “I grew up in a socialist country,” Peterffy says to the camera. “And I have seen what that does to people.”
Tom Freiling, head of Patriot Super-PAC, said his group chose to air a jaunty ad in Dayton because it is home to an active anti-tax Tea Party, his target audience. The same ad runs in smaller numbers in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Orlando, Florida.
“All these ads start to blend together, and it’s hard to tell what the ad is about or who it is even supporting,” Freiling said in a telephone interview. “I don’t feel like ours has that problem.”
In the spot, an animation mocking Obama’s “O” logo pairs with an original song. “A logo that promised everything,” the ditty goes. “But hope and change meant, you hoped to change my, constitutional liberty. Get out. Ya got to get out. You need to get out. BHO’s got to go, don’t know. Yes, we can, vote him out.”
Those are just some of the more than 14 outside groups with ads in Ohio supporting Romney’s presidency. The former Massachusetts governor is closing the gap with Obama in most of the state’s polls, although the president is still slightly ahead. Ohio carries 18 electoral votes and no Republican nominee has won the presidency without carrying the state.
New groups with fresh messages pop up almost daily. One paid for by Super PAC for America, whose national chairman is Ronald Reagan’s eldest son, Michael, hit the airwaves yesterday morning in Columbus.
It is silent for the first 15 seconds as unemployment, food stamp and foreclosure statistics in white letters roll up a black screen. Obama’s “four more years” chant fades in. “Four more years of this?” a female narrator huffs. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
By contrast, just three outside groups, led by super-PAC Priorities USA Action, are helping Obama on air in Ohio, CMAG data show. The most-aired Priorities ad, titled “We the People,” asks, “Doesn’t Mitt Romney understand? We can’t rebuild America by tearing down the middle class.”
The president’s campaign is “carrying much of its own water,” Wilner said. The campaign counters the Republican groups’ onslaught with 29 different commercials.
Obama and Romney telegraph messages to coal miners in the Wheeling-Steubenville and Parkersburg media markets, each trying to disparage the other’s commitment to the industry. Obama’s ad narrated by actor Morgan Freeman was, as of yesterday, airing only in Cincinnati.
Across the state, Obama’s top-played ad, airing about 2,500 times, features only Romney’s voice. It replays 25 seconds of a secretly recorded fundraiser in May in which Romney says 47 percent of Americans are dependent upon government and unwilling to vote for him.
“My job is not to worry about those people,” Romney says. Images of mothers, veterans and female workers are shown in the Obama ad.
The top outside spender in Ohio presidential advertising is American Crossroads, which had seven commercials, airing more than 7,000 times in most of the state’s markets. American Crossroads is guided by former George W. Bush political strategist Karl Rove.
The super-PAC’s ad in heavy rotation across the state opens with Obama saying he would like to make his pitch to voters by sitting with them at their kitchen tables. The camera pans to a woman at her kitchen table asking the president what he has to show for his four years in office.
Curiously missing from the Ohio ad rotation last month, was Restore Our Future, a super-PAC devoted to electing Romney. Not to worry -- the group announced this week that it will pump $3 million worth of ads into the state in the coming days.