WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) shelled out $80 million over five months to plaster television screens with campaign ads trumpeting his biography and priorities.
So what did all that money get him?
An even race.
Kerry's ads largely neutralized the campaign ad wars, giving him cover from President Bush's (search) onslaught of critical commercials and carrying the Democrat through his most vulnerable period when he was the party's newly minted standardbearer.
"His ads gave him enough ballast to help weather the Bush attacks. Given the redundancy behind those messages, you would have expected really sharp drops," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert in political communication. "Bush's attacks should have taken hold, and would have, in the absence of Kerry's advertising."
Unanswered, Bush's nearly $100 million in advertising since March could have crippled the Democratic challenger permanently — the same thing that happened to Republican Bob Dole in 1996.
That's the year then-President Clinton buried his Republican opponent through advertising.
This past spring, Bush tried to do the same to Kerry, but independent liberal groups helped the candidate stay competitive on the air as he rebuilt his campaign funds after securing the nomination in early March. The groups, which can't legally coordinate with Kerry's campaign, spent more than $40 million on anti-Bush ads.
Kerry, too, went on the air, mainly with upbeat ads in an attempt to introduce the four-term Massachusetts senator to the electorate. Only a few spots mentioned Bush and those ran early on.
Now Kerry has pulled his ads until September to hoard as much of his $75 million general election government check as possible for the fall homestretch. Independent liberal groups are pinch-hitting yet again for Kerry.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center (search), said the candidates are fighting over so few undecided voters that ads aren't having much, if any, effect on who's winning the race.
"It's all been fluctuating at a narrow range," Kohut said.
However, he noted that there have been changes in Kerry's image since early March, although he said the shifts can't be attributed to advertising alone.
Kerry and Bush now are evenly matched on most measures — from strong leadership to who would make the best commander in chief — an achievement for a challenger who voters didn't know that well before Bush's ads began.
However, after five months of ad wars, Kerry also been dogged by the label flip-flopper, which may be attributed both to Bush's commercials and the Democrat's own struggle to find his voice on Iraq.
And the president still has an edge in some polls on his principle strength — voter perception of who would be best at handling the war on terrorism — although Kerry has improved in that area.
Through March, April and May, Bush succeeded in driving up overall negative impressions of Kerry, from a positive opinion held by a majority of Americans as Kerry came out of his primary fight in March to a largely divided view as the race entered summer.
Most of June and July belonged to Kerry, as Bush pulled back some of his advertising. Meanwhile, Kerry poured tens of millions into commercials that praised his candidacy and coincided both with his announcement of John Edwards as his running mate and with the ticket's nominating convention in Boston last week.
Now the public's positive views of Kerry personally have returned about to where they were in early March when Kerry secured the Democratic nomination.
Kerry's ads didn't respond directly to Bush's attacks. But they were effective because they implicitly rebutted Bush's accusations, said Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
"If you believe he was decisive in Vietnam, then he still is decisive and you can't be a flip-flopper. And if he saved the lives of people like you, and they testify that he's a good guy, then he can't be out of the mainstream. If you believe that he was a war veteran, then he can't be weak on defense," Jamieson said.
The two presidential campaigns paint starkly different views of the effectiveness of Kerry's ad campaign.
Kerry pollster Mark Mellman called it "tremendously successful" in accomplishing its goals, particularly in the 19 or so competitive states whose media markets have been flooded with ads. "There's no question that John Kerry's image in the battleground states is stronger today than before the advertising campaign began," he said.
But Bush's chief campaign strategist Matthew Dowd argued that Kerry's ads haven't worked.
"They started out five or six points up in March and they're basically even now," Dowd said. "In the course of the last four months, they lost the advantage they had." As a challenger, Dowd said: "Even is bad news for them."