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Context on Battleground Spending

Let me start here. Talking Points Memo is, hands down, as good as it gets in political blogging/reporting. They are the gold standard. But last night, Greg Sargent at TPM’s Election Central reported that John McCain was outspending Barack Obama in battleground states under this headline:

McCain Outspending Obama By Hundreds of Thousands in Many Core Battleground States

Subsequently, Jonathan Martin at Politico picked up on the reporting, and given how many read TPM each day I’d expect to see more sources discuss the story today and tomorrow, at least to the extent VP talk does not crowd out everything else.

What’s wrong with this story’s framing?

What’s wrong is that when I read those headlines, I get the impression that McCain is massively outspending Obama in the core battleground states. No context is presented. While at least Martin has “On TV” in his headline, there isn’t a single mention on either TPM or in the Politico blurb contextualizing that spending in a state is not just advertising.

Readers here know that Barack Obama is dwarfing John McCain’s ground operation; we’ve written about it repeatedly. Those thousands of paid organizers are not working for free. The field offices and the phone lines and the Blackberries and the reimbursed travel miles are not free. Moreover, Barack Obama pays his organizers out of the Campaign for Change, which is funded by Obama’s own campaign; McCain’s are mostly paid by the coordinated committees which in turn are funded by the RNC, RNSC and RNCC, further impacting the way spending numbers are attributed to each campaign.

While millions may be spent on advertising, so too is one campaign spending millions on ground game while the other is spending virtually nothing. Obama is investing more massively than any campaign in the history of American politics on the ground game. McCain is essentially not investing in ground. His early summer numbers of 20,000 phone calls nationwide for a whole month would be those of a single, low-budget House campaign. That’s the equivalent of one person working ten hours a day for a month. For the entire nation. It’s basically the equivalent of zero contacts. When Martin writes that McCain’s ground campaign is revving up, it’s essentially starting from nothing and is now in 1st gear.

Further, the idea that McCain’s spending is disproportionately concentrated in television advertising in battleground states needs the context that he’s simply not spending it anywhere else. While we don’t have enough hard numbers to compose a fancy pie chart, rest assured that McCain’s would show a much, much higher percentage of his pie on television ads whereas Obama’s would show an unprecedentedly large slice on his thousands of paid organizers and hundreds of field offices.

As the story hits the discussion slipstream, hopefully it will not be framed as “hey, look at this surprising development, the guy with more money is being outspent because he’s foolishly and riskily airing TV ads in lesser battlegrounds.” Sure, Obama is spending plenty on ads, and he is spending advertising dollars more broadly (and thinly) than is McCain. But people are also failing to appreciate of dollars spent on the dramatic all-in move that Obama has made in organizing and neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion.