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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Update on Obama's First Advertising Buy

Back in June, the Obama campaign announced an 18-state advertising strategy. The states in the list were mostly your traditional swing states - but the Obama campaign had about half a dozen surprises on the list, states that George W. Bush carried overwhelmingly in 2004.

At the time, I opined that the ad buys were very indicative of the Obama campaign. It was noteworthy that it thought it could compete in a state like North Dakota, which hardly ever votes Democratic. But it was equally noteworthy that it did not feel that way about Kentucky, which has supported every victorious Democrat except John F. Kennedy.

It's been a while since Obama's initial ad buy, so it might be worthwhile to check in on the status of the horse race in those states. The following chart does that by noting the state where Obama bought advertising time, Bush's margin in 2004, McCain's current margin in the RCP average, and how much money the Obama campaign had spent on television ads as of July 30.

Status of Obama's Initial Target States.gif

If you look at those deep red states, those that Bush won by 10+, you'll see that Obama is currently running closer than John Kerry did in 2004. However, in all of the states except Indiana, he is not running close. Now that we are in the home stretch, and it is time for the Obama campaign to make tough choices about how to allocate scarce resources (money and, just as important, the candidate's time) - some of those deep red states should probably be jettisoned.

Was it worth running advertisements in these states?

That's a difficult question to answer. It appears unlikely that Obama will win any of them - and as of July 30 he had forced McCain to divert just $77,000 (to North Dakota). However, nobody knew for sure back in June. For a state like North Dakota, $150k seems like it was a good investment, even though it has not panned out. On the other hand, it is hard to justify the expenditures on a state like Georgia. The state's closeness in 1996, Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, and Obama's expectation of enhanced African American turnout probably justified some investment. However, $1.8 million is a lot to lay down on a state that's overwhelmingly favored the GOP in the last two cycles. I'd note that this figure doesn't include the costs of more than 100 paid staffers and 30 field offices.

Plus, advertising in places like North Dakota inflated expectations of Obama's electoral prospects. Now that these places seem out of reach, expectations are being corrected - which might be contributing to the unease among many Democrats. If the Obama campaign had done a better job managing expectations back in June, its supporters might not be so nervous today. [My own perspective is that the race is essentially unchanged since June. At the time, mine was a dissenting view.]

It is notable how the map this cycle largely resembles the map from 2004. The only state that clearly appears to have moved to battleground status this cycle is Virginia. Meanwhile, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin appear less competitive. This should please Democrats, but it doesn't tell the full story. The map favors the Democrats more this year than it did in 2004 - but relative to 1996 (the last year Democrats won), several states seem out of reach. Bill Clinton won six states that year that are not really being contested in 2008: Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia. He also kept the margin under five points in four other states: Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, and South Dakota. So, my judgment is that this is a mixed bag for both parties.

The caveat with this analysis is that a lot of the RCP averages listed above are based on polls conducted prior to either convention. We'll have a much better sense of the state of the map in a few weeks.

-Jay Cost