WASHINGTON – Turn on the radio while driving through West Virginia, Iowa or Oregon — or just about any other competitive state in the presidential race — and you'll be far more likely to hear ads by President Bush (search) than by John Kerry (search).
The president and the Republican National Committee (search) have spent about $10 million on radio ads during the general election campaign so far, outpacing Kerry, his party and allied groups roughly 3-to-1.
It's only been this fall that Democrats, led by the party's national committee, have started advertising on the radio in earnest. But even then, they still trail Bush's recent radio buys.
The president has spent $3.5 million on radio since Labor Day, compared with about $2 million or so for Democrats. And little of that Democratic money came from Kerry's campaign.
A Kerry spokesman, Michael Meehan (search), says, "As we turn the corner into the final weeks of the election, we will have the financial resources to communicate John Kerry's winning message through all mediums, including radio."
Still, some Democrats question whether the campaign is making a strategic error by virtually ignoring a medium that reaches large audiences and can be targeted to the desired listeners.
"Democrats tend to put all their eggs in the TV basket. I believe you've got to spread it across the board. It's a sore point for many of us in the party," said Donna Brazile, who managed Democrat Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. "It explains why voters can repeat Bush's lines over and over."
For decades, radio has been used as a secondary element in presidential campaigns built around TV. Strategists say television remains the most effective way to communicate with the masses.
Still, radio has many advantages, particularly when TV channels are cluttered at the end of the campaign. "Mainly, it can be a good vehicle to reinforce your messages," said Gene Beaupre, who teaches about campaign media at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
It's also less expensive than TV, and, therefore, allows candidates to spend more time explaining their viewpoints. And the medium reaches audiences — people driving long commutes, farmers on tractors plowing fields — who are likely to sit still and listen.
Also, campaigns can reach out to specific groups of voters based on geographic areas — or on demographics, depending on the format of radio stations, such as Christian, R&B, or all-news.
A disadvantage: It takes a lot of planning to do such targeting.
"It's not that Democrats don't believe in it, they just haven't maybe put the time and effort into figuring it out," said Carter Eskew, a Democratic media consultant. Unlike Kerry, Bush's campaign has had four years to plan its re-election strategy.
Since March, the president's campaign has run radio ads regularly in states considered presidential battlegrounds. The ads, which praise Bush and assail Kerry, mostly mirror the campaign's TV ads.
Currently, Bush's commercials are on large radio stations, including conservative talk radio programs, in 14 states, as well as on specialty stations that reach swaths of rural audiences, who tend to lean Republican, and Hispanics, a group in which the GOP is looking to make inroads.
The president's ads also are on urban radio stations whose listeners are predominantly black. An ad tailored for those stations has a black woman saying she's "tired of being taken for granted by John Kerry."
The Republican National Committee and a smattering of conservative-leaning groups also are chipping in.
Meanwhile, Kerry's campaign is taking a page from Gore's ad strategy in 2000 by waiting until a few weeks before the election to advertise on the radio.
Four years ago, Democrats' only radio advertising targeted blacks and Hispanics in the final weeks to encourage them to vote. That's largely what Kerry is doing this year. Within the last week, Kerry went on the air in select markets in 12 states mainly targeting those voting groups.
Acting independently of Kerry's campaign, the Democratic National Committee, a liberal organization of Democratic insiders called The Media Fund and a group of moderate Democrats have tried to fill in what they say is a spending gap that could put Kerry at a disadvantage in a tight race. Combined those groups have spent the majority of Democratic radio money.
The DNC has run ads targeting swing voters in battleground states, while The Media Fund is airing radio commercials aimed at black voters and the New Democrat Network has focused on Hispanics.