PHILADELPHIA — Senator Barack Obama is days away from breaking the advertising spending record set by President Bush in the general election four years ago, having unleashed an advertising campaign of a scale and complexity unrivaled in the television era
With advertisements running repeatedly day and night, on local stations and on the major broadcast networks, on niche cable networks and even on video games and his own dedicated satellite channels, Mr. Obama is now outadvertising Senator John McCain nationwide by a ratio of at least four to one, according to CMAG, a service that monitors political advertising. That difference is even larger in several closely contested states.
The huge gap has been made possible by Mr. Obama’s decision to opt out of the federal campaign finance system, which gives presidential nominees $84 million in public money and prohibits them from spending any amount above that from their party convention to Election Day. Mr. McCain is participating in the system. Mr. Obama, who at one point promised to participate in it as well, is expected to announce in the next few days that he raised more than $100 million in September, a figure that would shatter fund-raising records.
“This is uncharted territory,” said Kenneth M. Goldstein, the director of the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin. “We’ve certainly seen heavy advertising battles before. But we’ve never seen in a presidential race one side having such a lopsided advantage.”
While Mr. Obama has held a spending advantage throughout the general election campaign, his television dominance has become most apparent in the last few weeks. He has gone on a buying binge of television time that has allowed him to swamp Mr. McCain’s campaign with concurrent lines of positive and negative messages. Mr. Obama’s advertisements come as Republicans have begun a blitz of automated telephone calls attacking him.
The Obama campaign’s advertising approach — which has included advertisements up to two minutes long in which Mr. Obama lays out his agenda and even advertisements in video games like “Guitar Hero” — has helped mask some of Mr. Obama’s rougher attacks on his rival.
“What Obama is doing is being his own good cop and bad cop,” said Evan Tracey, the chief operating officer of CMAG, who called the advertising war “a blowout” in Mr. Obama’s favor.
Based on his current spending, CMAG predicts Mr. Obama’s general election advertising campaign will surpass the $188 million Mr. Bush spent in his 2004 campaign by early next week. Mr. McCain has spent $91 million on advertising since he clinched his party’s nomination, several months before Mr. Obama clinched his.
The size of the disparity has even surprised aides to Mr. McCain, who traded accusations with Mr. Obama over the advertising battle in this week’s debate, with Mr. Obama telling Mr. McCain that “your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative” and Mr. McCain saying that “Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history.”
The most recent analysis of the presidential advertisements by the University of Wisconsin, based on the period from Sept. 28 through Oct. 4, found that nearly 100 percent of Mr. McCain’s commercials included an attack on Mr. Obama and that 34 percent of Mr. Obama’s advertisements, which were more focused that week on promoting his agenda, included an attack on Mr. McCain.
That finding reflected the McCain campaign’s strategy of trying to make Mr. Obama an unacceptable choice in the eyes of undecided voters and Mr. Obama’s goal of making undecided voters comfortable with him.
But the Wisconsin Advertising Project says that since Mr. Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination in June, 54 percent of Mr. McCain’s advertisements have been completely focused on attacking him, roughly a quarter have mixed criticism of Mr. Obama with a positive message about Mr. McCain, and 20 percent have been devoted solely to promoting Mr. McCain.
In the same period, the study found that 41 percent of Mr. Obama’s advertisements had been devoted solely to attacking Mr. McCain, one-fifth mixed criticism of Mr. McCain with a positive message about Mr. Obama, and 38 percent were solely devoted to promoting Mr. Obama.
The group reported that Mr. Obama has also had several weeks in which his advertising was nearly 100 percent negative or contrast advertisements, though considerably fewer such weeks than Mr. McCain has had.
The percentages do not reflect the vastly greater number of spots run by Mr. Obama. But Mr. Goldstein said Mr. McCain had shown more purely negative advertisements than Mr. Obama had, in spite of Mr. Obama’s spending advantage.
Here in Philadelphia, the biggest media market in a critical state, both candidates showed a mix of positive and negative advertisements on Friday. The spots seemed to show up across the dial as regularly as the affable Geico gecko or the ambling ne’er-do-wells of FreeCreditReport.com.
During “Dr. Phil” on the CBS affiliate here, Mr. Obama showed a minute-long positive commercial recounting “one of my earliest memories: going with Grandfather to see some of the astronauts, being brought back after a splashdown, sitting on his shoulders and waving a little American flag.”
But minutes earlier during the late afternoon news on the NBC station, Mr. Obama had criticized Mr. McCain over a health care plan that an announcer alleges “could leave you hanging by a thread.”
Toward the end of the 4 p.m. newscast on the CBS station, Mr. McCain ran one of his rare purely positive spots, speaking directly into the camera and telling viewers, “The last eight years haven’t worked very well, have they?” He promises, “I have a plan for a new direction for the economy.”
But on the NBC affiliate an advertisement approved by Mr. McCain was tying Mr. Obama to Antoin Rezko, a Chicago real estate developer convicted of fraud who is listed as among the friends Mr. Obama is said to reward “with your tax dollars.”
That spot was co-sponsored by the Republican National Committee, which is allowed to split the costs with Mr. McCain on an unlimited number of advertisements, helping him to double the number of advertisements he can buy.
Mr. McCain has used such advertisements to keep up with Mr. Obama’s advertising in vital cities like this one, where the campaigns have combined to spend the most in the general election but where Mr. Obama has recently outpaced Mr. McCain by nearly two to one. But such advertisements come with a caveat: they must include a reference to Congressional issues and leaders, making the message generally less direct.
The spot with Mr. Rezko also shows the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, and Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
But for every city like Philadelphia, in a state Mr. McCain views as important to his chances for victory, there are those like Miami, Washington and Chicago, where Mr. Obama has often been able to run advertisements nearly unopposed. Washington and Chicago are particularly expensive, and Mr. Obama will easily win both. But their stations reach parts of the contested states of Indiana and Virginia.
Mr. McCain is also getting help from the Republican Party’s independent advertising unit, but it cannot coordinate with the party leadership or Mr. McCain’s campaign, meaning it is not always in line with Mr. McCain’s campaign message. And a smattering of outside groups are running hard-charging advertisements against Mr. Obama, but he has the money to immediately meet those attacks with spots directly addressing their charges.
Now spending almost as much as he can in local television markets, Mr. Obama has increased his advertising on the broadcast television networks, including on National Football League games and soap operas.
“They’re doing the networks” said Mr. Tracey, of CMAG, “because they’ve saturated these markets and they’re looking for more time.”
Last Sunday, Mr. Obama bought so heavily on football games and other nationally televised programs that, according to CMAG, he spent $6.5 million on a day when Mr. McCain spent less than $1 million.