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Analysis: Obama's ad team used cable TV to outplay Romney

A combination photographs shows U.S. President Barack Obama addresses his election night victory rally in Chicago, and Republican presidenti
A combination photographs shows U.S. President Barack Obama addresses his election night victory rally in Chicago, and Republican presidenti

By Marcus Stern and Tim McLaughlin

(Reuters) - As political experts assess Republican Mitt Romney's failed U.S. presidential bid, an analysis of how his campaign and President Barack Obama's winning team used cable TV to target ads at specific groups of voters may offer some valuable tips for the future.

During the final weeks before the November 6 election, with polls showing a tight race, Obama's campaign exploited cable TV's diverse lineup to target women on channels such as Food Network and Lifetime and men on networks such as ESPN.

The Obama team used the fragmentation of cable TV's audience to its fullest advantage to target tailored messages to voters in battleground states.

Meanwhile, Romney's campaign relied on a more traditional mass saturation of broadcast TV. The Romney camp was entirely dark on cable TV for two of the campaign's last seven days.

"We don't know why. This was a week before the election and you're in the fight for your life," said Timothy Kay, political director for NCC Media, a cable TV industry consortium.

The race had narrowed to key counties in several battleground states, the kind of isolation ideally suited for cable's geographical targeting and niche-marketing capabilities.

Republican Party operatives dismayed by Romney's defeat continue to debate what went wrong in a campaign awash in cash and run by a candidate with a business background. The former Massachusetts governor's campaign, like Democrat Obama's, spent a record-setting amount of cash; in Romney's case, it was $580 million in 20 months.

Obama's campaign outspent Romney's campaign on advertising by as much as $200 million, according to a Reuters analysis. But when spending by pro-Romney and pro-Obama outside groups is considered, Romney had the edge in overall TV advertising spending.

Republican consultants and advertising experts said Romney had enough money to compete with Obama's final advertising effort. Yet Obama cruised to a commanding Electoral College victory after a final concentration on a small group of battleground states.

"In market after market, the Obama campaign ended up putting more ads on target than the Romney campaign did," said Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, a nonpartisan consulting firm that tracked political ads and worked with both campaigns.

Stephanie Kincaid, who managed Romney's advertising campaign, declined to answer questions and referred inquiries to top Romney campaign officials Stuart Stevens and Russell Schriefer, her bosses at The Stevens and Schriefer Group, a political consulting firm. They did not respond to phone calls.

OBAMA'S ADVANTAGE

Cable television political advertising jumped from $136 million in 2006 to $650 million in 2012, although broadcast TV still garnered 80 percent of the campaign advertising spending last year.

Even with major broadcast networks and their affiliates, the Obama campaign appeared to out-perform the Romney camp.

A campaign spending review shows the Obama camp frequently spent far less than Romney for ads aired by the same stations during the same shows.

For example, a review of TV station filings with the Federal Communications Commission showed Romney, on the Sunday before Election Day, paid $1,100 for an ad aired during CBS's "Face the Nation" program on WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina. Obama paid $200 for a comparable ad on the same station during the same program.

Part of the reason for the Obama campaign's pricing advantage is that the president faced no Democratic primary challenge and was able to buy autumn TV time months in advance when the slots - like airline tickets - were discounted. Romney faced a tough battle for the Republican nomination.

The Romney campaign also simply did not have enough bodies to handle the labor-intensive business of planning, negotiating and placing ads on hundreds of TV stations simultaneously, according to several Republican consultants and media analysts who asked not to be identified.

Obama's campaign had 30 full-time media buyers. The Romney campaign relied heavily on a single person, Kincaid, with help from one or two others from time to time, according to sources close to the campaign. Senior officials with the campaign declined to discuss its advertising staffing.

"It's the equivalent of having a budget the size of a Coca- Cola commercial campaign and having two people managing it, where a Madison Avenue agency might have 50 people," said NCC's Kay. Kincaid and her small staff were overwhelmed, according to numerous political vendors who dealt with them.

Jim Margolis, an Obama campaign senior adviser whose firm GMMB handled its advertising, said the campaign also took advantage of information provided by companies like Rentrak Corp, a Portland, Oregon-based company that monitors the digital boxes attached to TVs in households using satellite dishes.

EXPLOITING FRAGMENTATION

In the past, political advertisers relied on the major networks rather than cable TV in a quest to reach the most television viewers.

But cable TV's increasing popularity has brought dramatic fragmentation to television viewership. In many markets, cable offers a hundred or more channels, giving advertisers a chance to target specific demographics.

For instance, the Obama campaign identified zip codes surrounding Ohio tire-manufacturing plants and purchased cable ads touting Obama's efforts to block tire imports from China.

Obama ran 600,000 cable ads to the Romney's 300,000 around the nation during the campaign, said NCC's Kay. Obama's cable TV push started in April. Romney's began in September.

Obama's team also mixed and matched its messages to sharpen the appeal in key counties.

"My impression was there was much more examination and analytics done with the Obama campaign," Kay said. "The Romney campaign had the same rigid schedule in every state."

(Reporting by Marcus Stern in Washington and Tim McLaughlin in Boston; Editing by Claudia Parsons, Marilyn W. Thompson and Will Dunham)

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