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Final Ad Burst; Final Ad Fizzle

"American Optimism" commercial ad run by the Romney campaign in New Hampshire.
"American Optimism" commercial ad run by the Romney campaign in New Hampshire.

In the closing hours of the primary, the campaigns are turning to the airwaves to make one last push for votes.  About a third of the electorate say they have yet to make up their mind.  Some 60 television ads a day might help them decide. That might sound like a lot but the real story of advertising in this primary is,  there’s so little of it.

Two candidates have dominated the New Hampshire television market for several months.  Texas congressman Ron Paul, often cast as a firebrand, is now running an ad aimed at burnishing his image as a reliable leader.

“Consistent.  Incorruptible.  Guided by faith and principle.  Ron Paul.  The one we’ve been looking for.”

From the Mitt Romney camp, commercials like this might lead you to think the primary was a foregone conclusion.

“It’s time for this pessimistic president to step aside and let American optimism that built the greatest nation on earth build a greater future for our children.”

In these final days, combined, the two campaigns and their super PAC supporters account for more than half of all the political ads on WMUR at a cost of about a third of a million dollars.  That’s small potatoes in the world of presidential politics.

“There has been very, very little spending, much to the chagrin of the New Hampshire media.”

Pat Griffin is a New Hampshire media consultant who worked with the Bush campaign in 2000.  The contrast with the last primary is stunning.  It is barely a tenth as much.  The peculiar dynamic of this race sidelined television.  Mainly, that dynamic is the enduring dominance of Mitt Romney.

Griffin says while on paper, Romney had many competitors, on television, he set the pace and Romney calculated that he would do best by holding fire.  Another Republican media strategist, Brad Todd who has worked with the Republican National Committee,  says to go head to head with Romney, a challenger would need to buy time on the Boston stations and that’s very expensive.

“The price of poker is pretty high.  And if someone starts, the others will follow.  But as long as no one starts, the others won’t feel compelled to follow.  They won’t be losing ground.”

It helped Romney that few candidates had enough money to duke it out on the air.  Texas governor Rick Perry might have, but as his popularity in New Hampshire plummeted, he turned his sights on Iowa.  Ron Paul has plenty of money and has been spending it, but there’s little indication his success comes at the expense of Romney.  He mainly attracts a different kind of voter. Nothing there would trigger an ad war.

But there is a candidate who did need to take votes from Romney,  who billed himself as a conservative who could attract independents.

“This nation has been downgraded.  We have been kicked around as people. We are getting screwed as Americans.”

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman put up his very first commercial just this past week.   A super PAC with close ties to his billionaire father spent over a million dollars earlier, but its presence evaporated in the key month of December.  Republican consultant Rich Killion says why Huntsman himself waited so long is a mystery.

“Before voters are going to make the decision to vote for you, they have to know you first and like you second.”

Killion is unaffiliated with any campaign but worked for Romney four years ago.  He says as late as November, about a third of voters told pollsters they had no opinion about Huntsman because they didn’t know him.  Killion thinks Huntsman missed a big opportunity.

“Television advertising isn’t the be-all and end-all and it shouldn’t be.  But it’s a tremendous tool to define yourself.”

The Huntsman campaign says they could have spent more on TV, but chose not to.   Instead, spokesman Michael Levoff says they relied on about 160 town hall meetings.  Television might have given the candidate a burst of popularity, Levoff says, but that sentiment could have faded just as quickly.

“We wanted a substantive rise built on our retail politicking throughout the state and I think that’s working well for us.  I think you’re going to be surprised on January 10th.”

The Huntsman campaign moved to increase the odds of that surprise,  even if trust gained through television is fleeting.  It just spent about $200,000 for ads on both WMUR and the Boston stations.

Among the other last-minute buyers is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.  His campaign bought ten ads in New Hampshire.

The candidate who might emerge with the best ratio of TV dollars spent to votes gained could be Rick Santorum.  The near-winner of the Iowa caucuses has spent zero on television ads.

If he does well on Tuesday, it will be fitting end to a primary season that at least in terms of TV commercials, has been one of the most frugal of modern times.

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