WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry (search) and the Democratic Party are limiting television advertising to just 14 states as the fall campaign opens, curbing their ambitions for a broader playing field against President Bush (search). The shift reduces Missouri, Colorado, Arizona and four Southern states to second-tier status.
The Republican incumbent is likely to follow suit, perhaps by pulling money out of those same seven GOP-leaning states and shifting it to traditionally Democratic battlegrounds.
As happens every election cycle, the campaign strategies are coming into focus after Labor Day, when budgets grow tighter and advisers are forced to narrow their sights.
The Kerry team sought to put off the day of reckoning by reserving $50 million worth of advertising time in 20 states through Election Day (search), declaring themselves in charge of a larger-than-usual playing field. But a close look at the advertising plans reveals a more modest set of priorities, centered on 14 states in which the Kerry campaign or the Democratic Party will air ads this month:
— The Kerry campaign has bought time in Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Michigan and Oregon. Those are the campaign's 10 most competitive states, ranking at the top of Bush's advertising priorities as well.
— The Democratic National Committee (search) is airing commercials in most of those states to keep Kerry competitive with Bush's large ad budgets. In addition, the DNC is on the air in Nevada, Maine, Washington state, and Minnesota. Nevada is a GOP-leaning state Kerry would like to win. The other three voted Democratic in 2000, and Kerry can't afford to lose them. The DNC has only a mid-sized buy in dead-even Minnesota.
"So much for all the talk of expanding the political map," said Bush strategist Matthew Dowd.
Kerry strategist Tad Devine said the campaign had several million dollars in advertising time reserved for Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas, which he called a sign of commitment to those battlegrounds. But the ads aren't scheduled to air until October, if then. No money has been given to TV stations for the October buys.
"We're at the point of the campaign where we had to make an honest first cut, but our options are still open in all these states," Devine said.
Virginia wasn't included at all.
Kerry and the DNC spent at least $20 million trying to put those seven states in play before Labor Day, and Kerry has visited them 25 times this year. Campaign political director Steve Elmendorf said the money was well spent because the states are still in play.
"You can make the case that paid media is not the only way to play. Field organizations and candidate travel also shows you're committed to the states," he said, noting that Kerry will be in Missouri on Friday and Colorado in the next 10 days.
The most logical reason for pushing states to the second tier is that polls show Kerry trailing Bush in those states — by double digits in Missouri and Arizona.
But there were other considerations. After computer modeling and analysis, the Kerry campaign determined that voters in some of his targeted states will react to ads that criticize Bush late in the campaign. Thus, they'll get money late, if ever.
Reducing the map of competitive states could work against Kerry because:
— Of the 14 states put in play by Kerry and his party this month, nine were won by Democrat Al Gore in 2000, three by less than 10,000 votes. That means Kerry has more turf to protect. "It's a thread-the-needle strategy," Dowd said.
— If he no longer has to defend the seven GOP-leaning states, Bush may shift money into battleground states that tend to favor Democrats, such as Michigan and Minnesota, to increase pressure on Kerry.
— The GOP-leaning states that won't see advertising until October are worth 73 electoral votes. Add that to the solidly Republican states and Bush would have 217 electoral votes. Winning two of his three big targets — Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania — plus a single other state would put him over 270. Not a simple task, but easier if he gets the seven GOP-leaning states handed to him.
Devine said Kerry is doing better in Ohio and Florida than Gore was in September 2000. Bush can't afford to lose either state, but a new poll shows the president up 8 percentage points in Ohio.
"This is not about counting states, it's about counting electoral votes," said Devine, who for months talked about the large number of states in play.
Devine was sent to the Capitol on Wednesday to update Democratic lawmakers after a month marked by slippage in the polls. He previewed television commercials relating to jobs and Medicare, according to officials familiar with the discussions, and sought to assure them the campaign would sharpen its message against Bush in the closing weeks.