After an unusually slow start at the end of 2011, political ad spending is likely to ramp up rapidly in 2012. Last week, MediaVest distributed a report to clients predicting political spending will jump by as much as 30 percent from four years ago—possibly reaching $4 billion—with the bulk of expenditures going to local television outlets. The report warns that the bump will crowd out nonpolitical advertisers.
“Every election year breaks records. We’re definitely going to see a big bump in spending in 2012,” said Maribeth Papuga, who oversees local TV and radio purchases as director of local video investment and activation at MediaVest. Papuga added that with campaigns and outside political interest groups raising huge amounts of money, “in some states, you could see even more than a 30 percent rise in spending.”
The predicted upswing comes on the heels of a fall in which the political ad marketplace was “much slower to get started” than in previous cycles, said Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at research firm Kantar Media.
In Iowa, for example, according to Russ Hamilton, gm of the ABC affiliate WOI in Des Moines, in spite of caucuses set for Jan. 3, “we were running between 15 percent and 20 percent behind what we expected [to be taking in from political advertisers] in the month of October and November.” But, he said, in the last few weeks, “we recovered that shortfall and surpassed it. It feels like they combined November and December into one month of spending.”
MediaVest’s Papuga said local broadcast remains the medium of choice for political messaging. “The main strategy is still to use traditional media—local broadcast TV and radio,” she said. (There are, of course, ad dollars going to local and national cable news outlets, and the use of social and online media has increased exponentially among political organizations in recent years.)
Papuga added that a continuing decline in broadcast viewers may lead campaigns and political advocacy groups to pour even more money into broadcast advertising this year than in previous cycles because “as ratings go down in television, you have to buy more units to reach the same number of people.”
Industry experts say there were several reasons for the fall slowdown. For one, the unprecedented number of televised Republican debates, which gave the candidates ample opportunity to disseminate their messages for free, has meant campaigns didn’t feel as much of a need for paid advertising. “The debates made these political campaigns a national story and a free media story,” said Kantar's Goldstein. “If there’s a debate on a Wednesday, you’re talking about it on Tuesday and [dissecting it] on Thursday. You’ve sucked up three days. Multiply that by  debates. You’re taking up a lot of news days [with coverage of the candidates].”
Beginning with the Iowa caucuses next week, however, Republican voters will start making choices at the polls (the New Hampshire primary follows on Jan. 10 and South Carolina on Jan. 21), which will pressure campaigns and political organizations to step up their advertising efforts. “The fact that, in Iowa and New Hampshire, the political ad market was so late in starting says absolutely nothing about what’s going to happen in 2012,” Goldstein noted. TV ads, he added, "will be the message weapon of choice.”