Does it really matter if Obama outspends Clinton on ads?

By David Lightman

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama is poised once again to dramatically outspend Hillary Clinton, this time in North Carolina and Indiana before next Tuesday’s primaries there — and once again, the imbalance may not matter.

"What matters is whether or not you have the right message," said pollster Ann Selzer.

Selzer’s Indiana survey last week found Obama with a slight lead over Clinton, with 21 percent undecided. Obama had nearly $43 million on hand for the primaries at the beginning of April, while Clinton had about $9 million, but Clinton had $10.3 million in debt while Obama had virtually none.


Clinton is believed to have closed the funding gap somewhat since her victory last week in Pennsylvania, but analysts still expect Obama to outspend her on ads in the two states by a 2-1 margin.

Money, however, hasn’t bought Obama success. He spent twice as much on ads as Clinton in Ohio, but lost the March 4 primary to her by 10 points. He had the same spending advantage in Pennsylvania, but lost that state’s April 22 contest by 9.2 points.

Most experts agree that Obama’s ability to blanket the airwaves with his ads hardly assures him of victory in the upcoming states, for a variety of reasons:

—Too many other sources. With the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks ubiquitous, Clinton, Obama, their views and their flaws are now well known.

"All the advertising was probably a bigger advantage three months ago, when they were still trying to establish themselves," said John Geer, editor of the Journal of Politics.

Saturation news coverage makes it hard to control the message with ads. For example, the political news has been dominated for the past several days by Obama’s relationship with controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, while the TV spot he began running in North Carolina last week addresses access to education.

—The wrong message. Two of the year’s biggest spenders were former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but their campaigns died quickly. Through the end of January, Romney ran 34,800 TV spots — half of all ads run by Republican candidates.

"It’s not the ads, it’s what you say," said Craig Allen Smith, professor of communication at North Carolina State University.


Giuliani’s tough talk against terrorists got overshadowed by growing economic concerns, and Romney’s efforts to fashion himself a conservative didn’t square with his moderate past.

Presumptive GOP nominee John McCain’s give-‘em-hell, independent spirit apparently fit the voters’ mood better.

It’s not certain yet what message will work in Indiana and North Carolina. Obama and Clinton both have run ads recently focusing on their proposals to ease the sting of high gasoline prices, and they split on one key idea — Clinton wants a moratorium on the 18.4 cent a gallon federal gasoline tax this summer, and Obama doesn’t.

Julia Fox, associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, saw a possibility that either candidate might score by pushing their positions in ads. "People do get campaign information that way," she said, "even though they tell you they don’t."

—Voter fatigue. Does repetition breed contempt?

Television news consultant Kenn Venit stressed the importance of "frequency and reach" to his clients, saying that even an annoying ad works if it sticks in the viewer’s mind.

"Just when you’re beginning to hate it, it’s probably starting to work," he said.

Not everyone agrees with that.


"There has to be some diminishing return" to bothering people with ads so often said James McCann, professor of political science at Purdue University.

Obama’s camp insists it doesn’t have a huge financial advantage.

"She (Clinton) has all the resources to run a full-fledged national campaign, as she has," said deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand. And true enough, Clinton’s had enough to fund her campaign at a competitive level, even if less than Obama. "It’s important not to overstate the financial advantage that’s being suggested," he said.

Clinton and her backers keep trying to paint her as a big financial underdog — and portray Obama’s spending as evidence that his appeal is limited.

"If Senator Obama can’t beat us outright with the enormous spending disparity, then there’s a problem," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.

They could both be right.

"What matters is running a good campaign," said McCann, and that has a lot of meanings.

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