By Josh Gerstein
A torrent of ads is flooding TV sets in the final days of Election 2012 — and fact-checkers, reporters and pundits are poring over nearly every one.
But there's another, less-noticed air war.
Radio allows campaigns, super PACs and other players to tailor messages to specific audiences on issues that play to the base, such as gay marriage, mammograms and defense cuts. It also lets them roll out edgier ads at a relatively low cost, including a rap artist-backed spot about “disrespect” of Obama and one from a religious conservative group claiming that Obama denied America’s Christian heritage during a visit to a Muslim nation.
Several industry sources said they expect spending on political ads for radio to set a record this year, though they cautioned that final figures are hard to predict because so much of the money is spent close to the election.
“There’s less clutter on radio than on TV,” said Evan Tracey, who founded a firm that tracks political ad buys, the Campaign Media Analysis Group. “It’s a crowded room problem. Everybody’s in the room yelling something different, and that’s particularly true in the battleground states. … In Las Vegas, there have been something like 73,000 political TV ads. That’s a very crowded room.”
Tracey, who teaches at George Washington University, called radio “kind of the original microtargeting and social media.”
“The reason people are still buying radio is because it works,” he said. “Radio allows you to target with selectivity.”
Historically, radio has been the place where incendiary ads often slip under the mainstream media’s radar in the last days before an election. One exception came this week, when the press and major automakers challenged the accuracy of a radio ad Romney is running in Ohio. The spot — a harder-hitting version of one airing on television — implies that Obama’s bailout of the auto industry helped General Motors shift 15,000 jobs from the U.S. to China.
Obama’s radio spots are often less mainstream than their TV counterparts and sometimes focus on issues ignored or glossed over on television.
One Obama radio ad aired earlier this month opens with a reference to the president’s support for gay marriage, a position he adopted in May and does not prominently feature in TV commercials.
“What are you going to tell them? You were just too busy? You didn’t think it mattered? Is that what you’re going to tell your friends who can’t get married? The ones who couldn’t serve openly in the military?” a young woman says in the Obama radio spot running on Top 40 stations and other music formats popular with young people. “You’re going to tell them they can’t make decisions about their own bodies anymore because you didn’t think your vote counted?”
Another Obama radio ad paints Romney as a danger to the health of women and children. “Every woman knows the fear. A routine trip to the doctor that stops you in your tracks. … They found something in my mammogram,” a female narrator says ominously. She says Romney rolled back mandatory coverage of preventive care as governor of Massachusetts and would do so again if elected president.
The ad’s tagline: “You worry about risks to your health so it makes sense to worry about Mitt Romney as president.”
“Radio is often below the radar. Because reporters typically pay no attention to it, candidates can often stretch the truth or use more outrageous claims on radio than they do in television,” said Darrell West of The Brookings Institution. “With a highly targeted radio spot, you can address hot issues without suffering much backlash.”
On the Romney side, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition put up a half-million dollars last week to air a potentially inflammatory radio spot that accuses Obama of mounting a “war on religion.”
“Obama claimed in a Muslim country that America is not a Christian nation,” says the ad, first noted by Slate. “Obama … said Congress had better things to do when it reaffirmed that ‘In God We Trust.’ Better things than honoring God? Like what?”
The ad references Obama’s comment during a 2009 trip to Turkey that “although … we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
Another radio spot from Romney supporters paints a bleak picture of the economy in the swing state of Virginia.
“I never thought Virginia could face such hard times,” a pained-sounding woman declares in a spot run by the Karl Rove-founded group Crossroads GPS. “I’m scared for my family, for my daughter’s future. … It’s time to let Barack Obama go.”
The spot’s talk of job losses and fear might not have the greatest resonance in northern Virginia, where unemployment is about 5.5 percent — more than 2 points below the national average. But the ad could have traction in more distressed parts of the state.
Most of Romney’s radio ads have tended to be tamer than those of outside groups. In one Romney ad airing in Ohio, former Republican governor and Sen. George Voinovich touts Romney’s bipartisanship in Massachusetts and faults Obama for a “deeply partisan vision [that] hinders his ability to work with others.” A Romney adviser said the spot was put on Cleveland-area radio because Voinovich is particularly popular there.
Meanwhile, a Romney campaign ad airing on Spanish-language radio sneers at “liberals.”
“With the liberals, there are 2 million more Hispanics living in poverty,” a female announcer says in Spanish in the spot, which mocks Obama’s famous “Si, se puede”/“Yes, we can” refrain from the 2008 campaign. “When the liberals keep telling us for these elections, ‘Yes, we can,’ in November, we will tell them, ‘No, we can’t.’”
One Democratic source said that, as of last week, about $22.8 million in radio advertising had been bought or reserved by the campaigns and groups active in the presidential race from April through Election Day. About $5.9 million of that total had been placed but not yet run, said the source, who asked not to be named discussing the estimates derived from ad-buying firms.
“The surge for us has really been for, say, the last three weeks,” said Pat McGee, vice president of political sales and strategy for Katz Media Group, the ad sales arm of radio giant Clear Channel Communications. “Every day, the needle moves a little bit more. … Radio tends to be the cavalry at the end.”
The Romney campaign has bought or reserved about $2.8 million in radio time but was being “significantly outspent” by the Obama campaign, according to the Democratic source, who would not provide precise figures for Obama’s radio buys.
“The Obama spending has been heavier thus far, but the Romney spending continues to come in,” said a source in the ad industry, who asked not to be named because he does business with both sides.
The Romney campaign doesn’t dispute that it has done less radio but says that’s largely dictated by limited finances. “We just have had less money. … It’s a budget decision more than anything else,” a senior campaign official said.
“We are now up fairly heavily, probably not as heavy as the Obama team is, but we’re starting to, I think, be pretty competitive with them in our targeted markets,” the official said. He added that the strategy is to reinforce the campaign’s overall TV message and to target specific regions or groups. Romney’s campaign says it has focused advertising on farm radio, Christian radio and conservative radio.
The Obama campaign also declined to comment on the record about its radio strategy.
“Radio gives any campaign or candidate the opportunity to reach voters that aren’t overtly political,” an Obama campaign aide said. “It gets you a chance to reach voters who aren’t reading POLITICO every day or checking BuzzFeed every five minutes.”
Radio’s music formats offer a pathway to one of the most coveted demographic groups in this year’s contest: young to middle-aged women, particularly those who shoulder a lot of family responsibilities and don’t have much time to watch TV or update their Facebook page — but do spend plenty of hours in the car.
Documents obtained by POLITICO show the Obama campaign asked radio stations to play the spot about gay marriage at times when 18- to 34-year-olds were most likely to be listening. Obama ads discussing women’s issues were aimed at women 18-49, the records show.
The campaign has made its appeal to harried moms explicit in the past few weeks by rolling out an ad featuring a woman who barely seems to have time to speak. The spot is running on adult contemporary stations, such as WASH-FM in the Washington area.
“I don’t just feel like a mom. I’m more like an air traffic controller,” she says. “Feed the kids. Get them to school. Make it to work. Carpool to soccer practice. Then dinner, homework, bedtime. And of course, this summer, moving Dad into a nursing home.” The spot blasts Romney for pushing Medicaid cuts that could affect care for seniors and children with autism or Down syndrome.
“Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to have a clue what it takes to be the air traffic controller in a household like mine. C’mon kids, we got to go,” she says before zipping off.
Romney’s backers have favored outlets such as WTOP-FM, the region’s all-news powerhouse. The station, which has a strong listener base at the Pentagon and among defense industry workers, is known for ads pushing pricey products that would be tough for consumers to purchase: joint strike fighters and anti-missile systems. This year, WTOP is drawing election ads warning Northern Virginia residents that their jobs could be lost if budget sequestration and defense cuts proposed by Obama take effect.
“Even as the world seems to become more hostile to America every day, President Obama is trying to drastically cut military funding. If we let him, a trillion dollars will be cut from our defense budget over the next decade. The result: weakened national security and over 130,000 fewer jobs in Virginia,” a female announcer says in one Romney spot. “Obama’s gutting of our military undermines every American who serves this country.”
As the election nears, some key radio stations are getting inundated with political ads.
On Miami-area, Spanish-language station WXDJ, a blunt ad from the National Right to Life Committee last week declared Obama “even opposes a law that would offer protection to kids who are born alive during an abortion.” The spot was followed immediately by one in which Obama talks about the deportation relief he granted to “los Dreamers.” The very next ad was a message from a local of the Service Employees International Union urging Latino workers to vote early for Obama and telling them where to go to do it.
If the Romney campaign has been slow to take to radio, its allies seem intent on making up that deficit.
Earlier this month, the pro-coal group American Energy Alliance rolled out a half-million dollars worth of radio ads against Obama, Federal Election Commission records show. The alliance, which is backed by the Koch brothers, said the sum will fund 8,600 radio ads to run through the election in Ohio and Virginia coal country. Radio is particularly cost effective at penetrating rural coal mining areas that are often split among several TV markets.
Crossroads GPS also dumped another $1.5 million into anti-Obama radio since the beginning of October. And Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, has pumped about $800,000 into swing-state radio ads in the past two months — far more than it spent on TV campaigns in the same period.
Obama’s side also has made a series of late radio buys.
Praskazrel Michel, or “Pras,” a Grammy-winning rapper and founder of the Fugees, has paid for nearly $800,000 in radio ads rolled out across Ohio and Virginia in the past month. The spots are aimed at “engaging, educating and mobilizing 18-34 year old black men,” according to the website of Pras’s super PAC, Black Men Vote.
One of the ads includes a sound bite of Romney adviser John Sununu calling Obama “lazy,” Newt Gingrich calling him “the best food stamp president in American history” and Romney saying, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
“It’s disrespect. It’s not right,” the ad’s narrator warns. “And if they think these things about President Obama, … what do they think about you? Black men, it’s time to stand up for ourselves.”
Priorities USA Action teamed up with the government employees union AFSCME for a $1.25 million radio buy slamming Romney’s “47 percent” comment.
The ads from outside groups differ from those of the campaigns in one key way: the price.
Under federal law, radio and TV stations can charge PACs and advocacy groups market rates to run their ads. But during the two months before an election, if they sell ads to candidates, they must do so at the station’s “lowest unit price.” The result is the groups pay more, sometimes much more, than what campaigns would pay for the same slots.
For instance, WTOP charged pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future $2,500 a minute for 36 morning-drive ads the group aired in July and August. The same spots were available to candidates for $785 each, or 69 percent off what the super PAC paid.
On conservative talk station WMAL, Crossroads GPS and Restore paid $1,500 for spots in morning drive.
Romney’s campaign got the same spots for $350.
Rachel Van Dongen provided research assistance for this report.