WASHINGTON – In late summer when most people expect a break from presidential campaign ads, both sides in this year's White House race are blitzing the airwaves with more than $60 million worth of commercials.
Political campaigns traditionally spend less on advertising in August, when voters are thinking more about vacations and less about politics. But with the race between President Bush and John Kerry (search) still tight, both sides are running wall-to-wall commercials in nearly two dozen competitive states and on national cable networks.
"The race is so close and it will be decided by so few voters in so few states that neither side can afford to go down," said Ken Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who studies campaign ads.
Bush is spending at least $30 million on TV and radio ads this month. Kerry is not advertising until September to save money, but the Democratic National Committee (search) is spending more than $20 million on TV ads and other liberal groups have committed more than $11 million. Conservative groups also are on the air but to a much lower extent.
The figure for August is expected to rise, with both sides spending more money each week.
And that's despite low viewership in August. An estimated 92.8 million people on average watch television on Sunday nights in August, compared with 110.7 million on comparable October evenings, according to Nielsen Media Research (search).
Hoping to catch sports fans, Bush is advertising on cable networks during the Olympic Games even though prices are anywhere from 25 percent to almost double the cost of ads during regular programming.
By Labor Day, the candidates, the parties and outside groups will have spent more than $280 million on an almost constant stream of commercials since ads for the general election began in March, months earlier than previous elections. It was the start of what would become an atypical political advertising season.
Through August, Bush will have spent more than $120 million on advertising, and Kerry about $80 million.
Steve McMahon, a Democratic media consultant, described "an escalating arms race" in which both sides are trying to gain an advantage, through advertising, in a tight White House race.
Bush and Kerry have been able to spend such staggering sums because of their decisions to reject public financing for the primaries. That allowed them to raise and spend as much money as they could until their party conventions.
Each has raised more than $200 million, breaking records from the 2000 campaign.
A once-obscure type of interest group that proliferated this year also is contributing to the increased ad spending, though mostly on the Democratic side. Dubbed "527s" because of the section of the tax code that covers them, the groups sprang up after new campaign finance laws banned the political parties from collecting unlimited donations of "soft money." Of these groups, the Media Fund, founded by former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, has spent the most — at least $35 million through August.
"Once you took that money away, 527s were empowered to be the monsters they are now," said Rich Bond, a GOP strategist.
Another change is the level of involvement by the parties. This year, with new federal limits on coordination between the parties and the campaigns, the DNC launched an "independent expenditure" ad campaign that dwarfs its previous efforts. It spent $20 million over three weeks since going on the air for the first time early this month.
By comparison, the Republican National Committee isn't likely to launch a major advertising effort until after Labor Day. However, it is considering running a 60-second TV ad this week pulled from a previously released, 12-minute documentary about Kerry and Iraq that was prepared by the GOP.
The advertising content is also different this year.
Many interest groups running ads this year have one goal — help elect or defeat one of the candidates. That marks a switch from years past when such advertising was designed mostly to promote issues, such as abortion rights.
Incumbent presidents who seek re-election usually stick with commercials that tout their accomplishments, while the challenger attacks. But the tables were turned this year.
Bush spent most of the last five months running mostly commercials about Kerry, while the Democrat's ads focused mainly on himself and ignored Bush. Kerry has that luxury since his allies are doing the attacking for him.