Politics & Policy

How Jeb’s Rivals Hope to Blunt His Massive Cash Advantage

(Alex Wong/Getty)

Jeb Bush has a massive financial advantage over his opponents: He has raised double the amount of his closest competitor in the race for campaign cash. But some of his opponents say that they can eat into the advantage afforded by Bush’s $114 million war chest — and, in fact, that they’re already doing it.

Welcome to the world of strategic media buying, where campaigns and super PACs compete to buy airtime on local television stations in the early primary states at the lowest rates. The prices can change from one day to the next, and over the course of several months, one candidate-affiliated super PAC can wind up paying several times as much as another for precisely the same time slot. How? The rate a station charges depends on a number of factors, including how far in advance the time is booked and the level of certainty the station affords an organization that a spot will actually air.

The failure to master this art is one thing that arguably helped to undo Mitt Romney’s campaign, which wound up paying more money to get fewer ads on the air than its Democratic counterpart — in one case, on the North Carolina television station WRAL, the Obama campaign paid $60,000 for 131 ad spots while the Romney campaign paid $184,000 for 124. The difference? In part, the Obama campaign bought the time two months earlier.

With 17 candidates in the race and dozens of corresponding super PACs vying for ad time, competition for the best slots — say, during the 6 p.m. news in Des Moines, Iowa, or Concord, N.H. — is expected to be fierce. And that competition is, in turn, likely to drive up rates as the primaries draw near.

Some, including Bush’s Florida rival Marco Rubio and his allies, believe that placing ad buys early will secure them airtime at a price lower than that of Bush’s campaign and super PAC, Right to Rise. That’s something they say will help undermine Bush’s financial dominance, but the Bush team strongly rejects the argument as wishful thinking.

In late July, Rubio’s campaign and the super PAC supporting it, the Conservative Solutions PAC, began reserving December and January ad time in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. In early August, the PAC supporting Scott Walker’s bid also poured $7 million into the Iowa media markets. Last week, Right to Rise started buying ad time in the first three states from mid-September through the end of December; the Bush campaign itself has yet to place a buy.

Mike Murphy, the political guru and longtime Bush confidant serving as the top strategist at Right to Rise, says the possibility that any of Bush’s rivals might even the financial playing field by placing strategic media buys is “1,000 percent bullshit.” He says his team has been talking to stations for months, and that there are “no special deals for bullshit artists at Rubio [sic] or anybody else.”

Unlike the Romney campaign, neither the Bush campaign nor Right to Rise are likely to wait until the week before an ad airs to place a buy, but Romney’s experience did demonstrate the benefits of buying early.

The Bush PAC hasn’t yet booked airtime in January, and that’s when, according to a strategist aligned with Rubio’s PAC, “there will be the most intense pressure on prices.” He says it’s an advantage that Rubio has already locked in time. “The time that’s already been purchased for December and January, if you go try to buy that time now, say, for Good Morning America in New Hampshire in the second week of January,” he says, “the price you will pay today is already substantially higher than the price you would’ve paid a month ago.”

Welcome to the world of strategic media buying, where campaigns and super PACs compete to buy airtime on local television stations in the early primary states at the lowest rates.

January is also when campaigns, but not PACs, are afforded a special legal protection: Within 45 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election, they are guaranteed what’s known in the industry as the “lowest unit rate” — that is, the lowest rate that a station is charging a commercial advertiser for the same time spot. PACs don’t get the same consideration, and, according to the strategist, “their only protection comes in buying early.”

A Bush ally argues that Rubio and the rest of Bush’s challengers will find themselves in a tough spot, having used up the bulk of their money on early ad buys. Many stations require cash up front for airtime, something the Bush team says will prevent many of its competitors from buying early once the race moves beyond the first few contests.

“The turnaround between South Carolina and Super Tuesday is eleven days. If you’ve spent all or a big portion of your money before then, you have eleven days to raise money and place buys in the March 1 states,” says the Bush ally. “We’re going to have a huge advantage over them from January and beyond.” Murphy, always blunt, puts it this way: “Unlike others we have the cash to afford our buys. They don’t.”

The timing of the first summer buys gave both Rubio and Walker a head start over Bush, and Federal Communications Commission filings show the early buyers got some advantage, though hardly a dramatic one. While the Conservative Solutions PAC backing Rubio’s bid and the Unintimidated PAC supporting Walker’s bid paid $315 to air 30-second ads during late-December broadcasts of the Des Moines NBC affiliate’s noon news, Right to Rise paid $565 for the same slot. (All of the ads are likely to air during the noon news on different days during the same week.) And while the Conservative Solutions PAC paid $3,000 for a 30-second spot during the 10 p.m. news broadcast on Des Moines’s CBS affiliate the same week, Right to Rise is set to pay $3,500 for the identical slot. So far, though, the three organizations have mostly paid the same rates for many of the same spots.

“I don’t assume we will be killing the Bush PAC at this point for December,” says the Rubio-aligned strategist, “but the longer they wait to do January, the tougher it’s going to be for them.”

But those with experience making buys say nothing is certain. “It’s almost like trying to predict what a stock price is going to be,” says one political media buyer. But, he says, one of the entities is going to get gouged when it tries to buy at the last minute. “Somebody is,” he says, “happens every time, because they don’t have the cash, and then it shows up, and then they book.”

A cash shortfall presumably won’t be the Bush campaign’s problem. “The Bush super PAC had $100 million,” says the longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. “Even if you devalue that by half, two-thirds, four-fifths, it will still be a very powerful vehicle.”

His rivals hope that it will be devalued enough to make them financially competitive.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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