Assuming, not unreasonably, a turnout of 60%, some 135 million Americans will have cast their vote for president by the time the polls close a week from today.
Technically, they will not have voted for the incumbent, Barack Obama, or his challenger Mitt Romney or whatever obscure third-party candidate may have tickled their fancy. They will have decided for which candidate their state must cast its electoral college votes on a winner take all basis.
America’s founding fathers adopted this system over direct election as a sort of constitutional affirmative action to protect rural minorities, including slaveholders, from domination by urban majorities. On four occasions, most recently in 2000, a candidate has won a majority of the popular vote but failed to secure a winning combination of states . If the latest opinion polls accurately predict next Tuesday’s outcome, it could happen again this year, with Romney winning the national plebiscite but falling short of the 271 electoral votes needed to take the prize.
This would be an unfortunate start to Obama’s second term. Whatever happens to Romney, his Republican party looks certain to retain control of the House of Representatives and has a good shot of gaining seats in, if not outright control, of the Senate. It normally takes a couple of years for a second term president to start being thought a lame duck. For Obama, paralysis could set in immediately.
In the meantime, the outcome hinges on the votes of the rather less than 1% of the electorate thought to be undecided in the handful of states where neither candidate commands a lead larger than the margin of error in voter surveys.
Never have so few been blitzed by so many television ads at such great expense. The campaigns have thus far off fired a combined total of 915,000 ads, 210,000 of them in the first three weeks of October, according to the Wesleyan University Media Project. This is nearly half as many again as the number broadcast in 2008 and 2004. If you watch television in the more populous parts of Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia or Florida, you are under almost round-the-clock assault.
The Obama campaign has spent an estimated $240 million on flighting 460,536 ads since June. Romney has nominally spent less , $92 million for 169,747, but has relied on outside support groups such as Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, Restore Our Future Inc. and Americans For Prosperity to produce and pay for his artillery to the tune of around $170 million.
In terms of sheer volume, Obama is easily outpacing Romney and his surrogates. The campaigns have between them run 7746 ads broadcast to Washington’s Virginia suburbs, but the score is 4439 to 2307 in Obama’s favour. In Denver, where 9950 ads have run, Obama is up by 1646.
One reason for the disparity is that stations are required to quote their lowest prices to candidates’ own campaign organisations but can charge surrogates whatever the market will bear. Team Romney is therefore having to shell out many more bucks per bang than Team Obama.
Quantity isn’t the only notable feature this year, says Wesleyan. The ads are also nastier. 73% of Obama ads since October 1 have been pure attacks on Romney’s policies and past while only 6% could be classified as positive. Romney, though not his support groups, has been less aggressive. Wesleyan rates 12% of his recent ads as positive, 36% as negative.
Overall, most ads on both sides have sought to arouse viewers’ anger towards the opponent (70% of pro-Obama ads versus 86% of pro-Romney ads). Only a quarter of either campaign’s ads try to generate enthusiasm on their candidate’s behalf.
Are TV ads cost-effective campaign tools? If you accept that the outcome depends on how less than 1 million citizens in five or six states make up their minds in the closing weeks of the election, the campaigns will likely end up paying $1000 to turn each undecided voter. There are surely cheaper means to the same end and no doubt the American political campaign industry, which perhaps has no equal in the world, will find them.
For now, though, campaign donors feel enough is at stake to justify the expense. After all, then Vice President Al Gore needed only another 538 Florida votes in 2000 to convert his popular vote victory into an electoral vote victory as well.
Assuming President Gore would not have led America into a ruinous war in Iraq, $1000 for each of those 538 votes would have been a real bargain.