Starting several weeks ago, both campaigns gained the ability to obtain radio and TV advertising at the “lowest unit rate,” which is guaranteed to federal candidates within 60 days of an election. The legal requirement means that campaigns — but not parties, nonprofits or super PACs — can commandeer airtime at the cheapest prices.
At the start of September, Romney had about $50 million in his campaign account compared with about $90 million for Obama, who has brought in much of his money in small-dollar contributions. Romney, by contrast, has relied heavily on donors giving up to $75,000, most of which must go to the Republican Party because of legal limits on how much a donor can give to a candidate’s campaign committee.
Outside groups and parties typically pay at least 50 percent more for advertising than candidates do in the final weeks of a national campaign, according to media buyers. Sometimes the gap is wider: One GOP ad buyer said a 30-second slot on “Good Morning America” in Washington will cost a candidate about $2,000, compared with twice that much for an interest group.
Federal candidates also legally receive priority over other clients, meaning they can force regular commercials aside, and they cannot be refused airtime by radio or television stations, regardless of the content.
“When everyone talks about what the media buy is, it’s often very misleading,” said Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising. “Not all dollars are created equal.”