Ground Versus Air

This afternoon’s must-read is a piece by TNR’s Nate Cohn on the spending strategies of the two presidential campaigns. Nate devotes a good chunk of his time displaying research on the relatively small impact of paid media in presidential campaigns. He also notes the well-known decision of the Obama campaign to invest more, relatively, in GOTV “ground game” operations.

But the real gem in his analysis is this take on the strategic imperatives that have driven both campaigns in their chosen directions:

[T]he respective spending strategies might not just be a Moneyball-esque calculation about the relative effectiveness of air versus ground spending, but instead a cold reflection on the strategic imperatives facing each campaign. Obama holds a clear lead among registered voters and an unusually large gap between likely and registered voters has been responsible for a close race. If Obama’s ground game could narrow the gap, Romney’s deficit would become daunting. But unlike Obama, Romney probably won’t win on turnout alone. He trails among likely voters, can’t and won’t count on the wide gap between likely and registered voters persisting, and demographics don’t give Romney an unusual large untapped reservoir of potential new voters, so closing the gap will require him to persuade undecided voters, presumably with a barrage of campaign advertisements. So the Obama campaign has two routes to victory that appear consistent with their spending strategy: invest millions in a potential demographic trump card, while spending enough on the airwaves to keep Romney from sweeping undecided voters. And conversely, winning undecided voters is prerequisite to a Romney victory, so they’ve piled money onto the airwaves.

There’s no way to be sure whether Obama will benefit from superior turnout, let alone whether it would overwhelm Romney’s advantage on the air. But there’s not much cause to presume that Romney’s air campaign will pulverize Obama into defeat, either. The historical effects of ad spending are relatively meager, views of the president are deeply entrenched, and voters have already been exposed to a full presidential campaign’s worth of advertisements. Even in the plausibly competitive states where Team Romney ran uncontested advertisements, millions of dollars do not appear to have put the states into play. Given that Team Obama maintains a lead after being outspent by a two-to-one margin for two months, there is no reason to assume that a deluge of advertisements will hand Romney the lead in the race’s final hours.

Not that anyone much doubted it, but it’s clear you can expect Team Mitt’s closing ad barrage to be even more negative and mendacious than it’s already been. Other than maybe a loud ‘n’ proud defense of the Ryan Budget that would lock the slippery Mitt into a clear post-election agenda (which pretty clearly ain’t happening), the GOP base most wants a level of anti-Obama savagery that matches their own feelings. And it may be the only course of action with a chance of dislodging an unusually high number of undecided voters. Get ready for some Hateball.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.