WASHINGTON – Just a month into his advertising campaign, President Bush has poured about $40 million into television and radio commercials that highlight his record and criticize John Kerry's, outspending Democrats 2-to-1.
Kerry, the soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee, has spent about $6 million on general-election TV ads, while liberal groups acting independently of him aired $14 million worth of spots during the same period.
Combined, Kerry and the groups have pulled even or ahead of Bush in some media markets in competitive states. But Bush - with $110 million on hand - still has buried them since March 4, when he started running ads on local TV affiliates in 18 states, on national cable networks and on radio stations.
It's unclear how much of an effect Bush's onslaught has had on the race, particularly in battleground states. Independent polls show Bush and Kerry remain in a virtual tie compared with early March when Kerry - on a post-primary bounce - led Bush, who had not yet campaigned. Democratic polling shows Kerry has dropped 5 to 6 percentage points in key states since Bush's advertising began.
The independent surveys show Kerry losing ground on domestic issues, such as jobs and health care, which pollsters attribute to the ads and Republicans' daily criticisms of Kerry.
"It makes you feel like it's post-Labor Day," said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign.
Bush's campaign releases a new ad every few days to remind voters of his strengths and label Kerry as weak on defense and the economy before the Democrat can project a positive image. Bush, who has bought airtime through mid-April, starts running a spot Saturday that portrays Kerry as a serial tax-raiser.
Overall, Bush's positive commercials had been running more often than his negative ads, which typically receive more free media exposure because of their controversial content. But there are signs that Bush has started airing anti-Kerry spots more heavily, said Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which tracks ads using data from TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG.
"They're really focusing on defining John Kerry right now," Goldstein said.
Bush has spent about $6 million on TV ads in Florida, the state where the close 2000 election was decided. Ohio and Pennsylvania, states decided by tight margins four years ago, follow at about $3 million apiece.
Democrats contend they don't have to match Bush dollar-for-dollar to remain competitive.
"The key is to be at least at a 2-to-1 ratio," said Steve Murphy, a Democratic media strategist who managed Dick Gephardt's presidential campaign.
Kerry has run TV ads on 17 states over the past month and was airing a new commercial Friday claiming that Bush's economic policies caused jobs to move overseas.
The Massachusetts senator's campaign lost a key part of its ad-making team - Jim Margolis' firm - on Friday because of a contractual dispute. The departure means Kerry adviser Bob Shrum's firm, which had shared the creative duties with Margolis, will take on a broader role.
The Media Fund, three affiliates of MoveOn.org and, to a lesser degree, other liberal groups combined have aired moderate levels of ads assailing Bush in key media markets. Of the groups, the Media Fund has spent the most over the past month, pouring in $10 million. The AFL-CIO entered the fray Thursday with an ad in 11 states.
Bush's campaign and the Republican Party this week filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, accusing Kerry of illegally coordinating ads with outside groups. Kerry and the groups deny wrongdoing.
Strategists say spending the most money doesn't automatically translate into a White House win because paid advertising matters less in presidential campaigns than in other elections. And, they say, it's become less effective in light of technological changes - like the Internet, TiVo or MP3 players - that allow people to tune out commercials.
But advertising does give Bush an edge because he can ensure that his precise messages dominate TV and radio, said Martin Kaplan, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. Still, Kaplan said, "Saturation can be a turn off to voters."
Ad spending this year by both sides, meanwhile, is far ahead of where it was four years ago.
In June 2000, the first month of advertising for that year's general election, Bush and the Republican Party and Al Gore and the Democratic Party spent a combined $10 million - one-fourth of what Bush alone spent in his first month on the air this year, according to Goldstein's group.