Barack Obama rode to victory in 2008 on a record wave of fundraising that allowed him to drown his opponent in advertising and rack up victories far into Republican territory.
But with fewer than 100 days until the 2012 election, President Obama faces a far more difficult financial task in his bid for re-election – battling a well-funded challenger in a narrow band of swing states, which will be inundated with attack ads and campaign visits.
Four years ago, the two presidential campaigns spent big in nearly half the country. But the fight this year is concentrated in fewer than a dozen states that are suffering through more political ads than ever before.
In the pivotal swing state of Ohio, Obama has dumped $12 million on ads so far, which is four times the amount he spent at this point in 2008.
The deluge is funded not only by Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, but also by a motley and shadowy mix of outside groups, many of them backed by millionaires. The contest also marks the first time since the post-Watergate era in which neither candidate is taking advantage of public financing, which would have limited the amount of money the campaigns could spend.
The result is a crabbed contest far removed from 2008, when Obama spent relatively little time hosting fundraisers yet still managed to bring in as much as $6 million a day in the final months of the race. Obamas figures are down this year, however, and both candidates are racing to squeeze in as many donor events as possible into their schedules.
This weekend, the Obama campaign was planning thousands of events across the country aimed at mobilizing volunteers.
Theres much less room for error in 2012 than there was in 2008, said Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political ad spending nationwide. I dont think were going to see a world where Obama has an advantage in money.
Under the gun financially and battling low approval ratings, Obamas campaign is concentrating its advertising in nine swing states this year. Thats down from more than 15 states that it was targeting at this point in the 2008 election, when Obama was competitive in red-leaning states such as Indiana and even toyed with attempting to flip GOP strongholds such as Georgia and Montana.
Many of those targets are out of reach this year, resulting in a much heavier dose of advertising in the remaining swing states. Many voters are already turned off by the deluge, making it even harder for Obama or Romney to break through, according to experts and voter interviews.
Its October in July, said Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes campaign ads. This just hasnt happened before. In 2008, we saw a lot more markets in play than we do this cycle. There are more ads crammed into a much smaller air space.
In Cleveland – the largest market in a state crucial to both sides – the campaigns and their allies have spent $13.6 million so far on broadcast television, according to data from Goldsteins firm. In a single week this month, the campaigns spent $1.2 million to air more than 2,000 ads on Cleveland stations; thats an average of one political spot every five minutes, 24 hours a day.
Similar volumes have inundated the rest of Ohio.
The ads are ridiculous, said Julie Johnson, 48, a high school English teacher and Obama supporter from Perrysburg, near Toledo. Im very tired of the ads, and its only July.
Jane Peters, owner of Media Management Services, which handles advertising purchases in the Columbus market, said her regular clients are routinely being bumped off the air by political groups that will pay top dollar for spots, particularly during news programs.
It boggles the mind the money thats being spent, Peters said. At this rate, by September and October, theyre going to take every spot thats out there.
Florida, home to some of the most expensive markets in the nation, has seen $30 million in spending related to the Obama-Romney race so far. In the third week of July, campaigns and outside groups spent $1.2 million on 1,741 spots in Tampa alone.
The difficulty facing Obama is evident in overall ad spending: As of last week, Romney and his allies had outspent Obama and his allies by $77 million to $71 million, a reversal from four years ago when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was badly outgunned by Democrats.