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Second of a two-part series
The presidential race is a national contest in name only. In reality, it's being fought in eight or nine swing states around the country.
Campaigns and outside groups have already poured $400 million into TV ads in hopes of winning over the few remaining undecided voters. With six weeks to go, some swing states have already seen twice as much ad spending as in the entire 2008 cycle.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., advertising has tripled compared with the same time four years ago. And while ads used to be confined to morning and evening news programs, now they're popping up on soap operas, game shows and even cable reality programs like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
It's enough to drive even the most fervent political partisans over the edge.
In an office near downtown Colorado Springs, a few dozen volunteers work a phone bank under signs that say "Colorado for Romney," "Romney = jobs," and "Obama = taxes." A whiteboard lists the volunteers who've made more than 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 calls.
That last category has only one name: Bruce Redmann. Though the retiree spends hours every week making phone calls for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, when the ads show up on his TV he hits mute.
"Both sides of it just turn me off," he says. "They're 10 percent truth and 90 percent garbage."
If negative ads count as garbage, then his assessment is generous.
According to data that the ad tracking firm Kantar Media CMAG collected for NPR and PBS NewsHour, almost 1,500 political ads ran in Colorado Springs last week. About 50 ads were positive. That's 3 percent.
Coke and Pepsi could never get away with that degree of negativity. But political ads are different. On Election Day, it's OK if voters hate a candidate, as long as they hate his opponent just a little bit more.
"The old adage is that negative advertising hurts both candidates — it just hurts the one doing it a little less than it hurts the one he's going after," says Colorado Springs advertising executive Kyle Blakeley.
A Strategic Approach
In this race, negativity is about the only thing the Romney and Obama ads have in common. Everyone agrees that the two sides are executing very different advertising strategies.
Democratic media consultant Tad Devine says the president needs a diverse coalition to win: women, young people, minorities, well-educated white voters.
"Those groups together are very different in terms of who they are, and in order to reach them you have to go to different places," says Devine, "particularly when you're talking about television advertising. They're very discrete audiences."
That's one reason the Obama campaign is advertising so much on cable now. It's easier to reach a niche market on cable: Spike for young men, Lifetime for women, Univision for Latinos.
In contrast, Romney's ads use a much more universal message.
"It doesn't matter where you are or who you are, having a good job, that's important to every demographic group," says Romney political director Rich Beeson. "As opposed to President Obama, who plays class warfare or race warfare or any number of things to divide people."
The Obama strategy has a precedent. In 2010, Democrats barely won Colorado's Senate seat by building the largest gender gap of any Senate race in the country. This year, Democrats are shooting for an encore.
And niche targeting permeates everything the Obama campaign does, not just advertising.
At an Obama field office in Colorado Springs, college students and a few high schoolers have gathered to make calls. When high school senior Kate Henjum talks to voters, each person gets a different message.
"So when I have those conversations with a woman, it is about what Barack Obama is doing to help women," she says. "What is it Barack Obama is doing to help youth? What is Barack Obama doing to help the Latino community?"
According to research by Kantar, the Obama campaign has 20 different spots on the air to reach all of these different groups. That number is unprecedented. The Romney campaign has a smaller number of spots in rotation, with a more universal message about job creation.
Finding The Audience
On one of the last summer evenings in Colorado Springs, the sun set over Pike's Peak as a local band entertained a few hundred people from around the city. They brought potluck food made with local ingredients for the second annual Community Dinner.
Bonnie Simon was decorating vases full of local flowers. She owns a small business that promotes other small businesses in town. An Obama voter in 2008, this year she's genuinely torn.
"I don't know that I can, in good conscience, vote for the Republican Party," she said. "It seems to me they don't think much of women. But I don't know if I can vote for the Democrats, because I don't know that they think much of small-business people. So the things that I hear from both sides, they do affect me, but it's like a tug of war at this point. And I don't know who to vote for."
People like her are the reason the campaigns are pouring money into swing states — more than $2 million last week in Colorado alone. It doesn't matter if the advertising saturation makes the vast majority of voters throw their remote control at the television screen. The vast majority of people know whom they'll vote for. It will all be worth it if the candidates can just capture that rarest, most elusive species — the genuinely undecided voter.