Rick Santorum and his allies have waged a guerrilla ad war on Mitt Romney, targeting TV buys where airtime is cheap and conservative voters are abundant.
The strategy worked in states like Louisiana, Minnesota and Missouri – which Santorum won – and helped him mount serious challenges in battleground states like Romney’s native Michigan.
But that playbook will be put to the test when the race heads to a series of big states including California, New York and Texas. These states are not only home to some of the priciest places to buy TV ads, but there are fewer pockets of less-expensive cities for Santorum to target – a tough combination for a candidate who needs to ratchet up the proportion of delegates he picks up in each contest.
“These are very expensive states,” said Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. And they include some top media markets: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Dallas.
In Illinois, the pro-Santorum super PAC Red White and Blue Fund avoided ad buys in Chicago — another top 10 media market — focusing instead on smaller markets like Champaign-Urbana, Peoria and Rockford.
But that strategy isn’t likely to work in some of the upcoming primaries, Goldstein said. “There aren’t enough Rockfords in California.”
The Red White and Blue Fund ended February with just $365,000 in the bank, according to the most recent campaign filing. Santorum’s campaign had $2.6 million cash on hand at the end of last month after raising $9 million in its most successful month for fundraising. The super PAC and campaign say they’ve continued to bring in big checks this month, but their cash reserves likely still pale in comparison to Romney’s.
In contrast, Restore Our Future spent $9.9 million last month on ads attacking Santorum — more than the Santorum campaign raised overall. The super PAC ended February with $10.5 million in the bank; the Romney campaign ended last month with $7.3 million cash on hand.
In the coming months, the biggest delegate payoffs are New York and Pennsylvania on April 24, Texas on April 29, and California on June 5. With Santorum lagging far behind in the delegate count, he’ll need to fare well in those contests as well as the other, smaller states, to keep his longshot bid alive.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spent about $10 million and $5 million, respectively, on advertising in Texas alone, according to a 2008 study by CMAG and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. Obama spent another $5.6 million on California ads, compared to Clinton’s $6.2 million in the Golden State. The Democrats’ schedule was different from this year’s GOP primary calendar, but the figures offer evidence that it’s pricey to compete in those states.
(...) The Red White and Blue Fund has spent about $6.7 million on political advertisements so far this cycle, including television as well as other ads, according to FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s compared to the $37.7 million that the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future has spent on political ads.
(...) But Santorum and his friends aren’t throwing in the towel.
The Red White and Blue Fund has already spent more than $400,000 on ads in Louisiana, where Santorum picked up a victory Saturday. It’s also eyeing opportunities in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to Stuart Roy, an adviser to the super PAC, although he said the plans haven’t been finalized.
He said the super PAC will likely stick to its strategy of avoiding expensive markets like Washington, D.C. and New York City, where air time is at a premium. But he still thinks the group can win over Santorum supporters at a fraction of the cost that the Romney campaign will plow into advertisements.
“Every state where we have had the money and the resources to completely drill in a single message … we’ve either split the delegates or we have won the state outright,” Roy said. And although the better funded Romney campaign and Restore Our Future have the resources to communicate more messages, “you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns,” he said.
Roy also thinks that while April is an “okay” primary schedule for Santorum, the May calendar looks much more promising.
“You have North Carolina, you have Texas, which is the big Mac Daddy … you have West Virginia, you have Arkansas,” he said. “There’s just a slew of good states.”
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said the campaign has been outspent in every state so far, so “this is nothing new.”
He said they’ll stick with the tactics that have led them to the series of primary victories they’ve already scored. “We’ve got to fight this thing a little bit differently,” he said. “We’ve got to do a 2010 insurgent campaign style model.”
Still, the GOP underdog is likely facing some tough sledding in the upcoming air wars.
“It looks pretty daunting now,” said Goldstein. “I think, eventually you can survive being out-advertised for a couple days in a couple markets. But when you get out-advertised week after week after week, and market after market after market in state after state after state, there begins to be a cumulative effect.”