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Romney’s Slightly Exaggerated Advertising Edge

If Rick Santorum loses in Illinois on Tuesday, you might hear him or one of his advisers lamenting how badly he was outspent on the airwaves. There are ways to make the discrepancy seem very large.

According to Politico’s reporting, Mitt Romney and his “super PAC” outspent Mr. Santorum and his super PAC by a seven-to-one ratio in Illinois. And the discrepancy was even greater, 21-to-1, in the Chicago area.

Those numbers might sound impressive, but they leave out a lot of context. For instance, if I spend $100 to advertise Nate Cola in the New York market, and you spend $2 to pitch a competing product, I’ll have outspent you by a 50-to-1 ratio. Neither of us, however, will have spent enough for anybody to have seen our commercials. Maybe I could make it into the classified section of a neighborhood newsletter, while you could buy some tape and put a flier or two on a lamppost.

The situation isn’t exactly like that in Illinois. But considering the state’s large population, the advertising spending there is quite modest.

Mr. Romney and his super PAC spent $3.7 million in Illinois. But there are 12.9 million people in the state; that works out to about 29 cents per capita. This is more than Mr. Santorum spent — 4 cents per capita — but it pales in comparison to some previous states.

In Iowa, for instance, Mr. Romney and his super PAC spent $4.3 million, but that state is much smaller, with a population of 3.1 million. On a per capita basis, he spent $1.40 there, about five times the saturation that he reached in Illinois.

To blanket a state as large as Illinois with advertising, you would instead need to spend as Mr. Romney did in Florida. There, he and his super PAC bought $15.4 million in television commercials, or 81 cents per capita.

In South Carolina, Mr. Romney and his super PAC spent 94 cents per person, while Newt Gingrich and his super PAC countered with 51 cents per person.

In these states, advertising was a major part of the story. These figures were at least in the ballpark of what the Democratic campaigns were spending in 2008, although they are paltry by general election standards. (In advance of the New Hampshire general election in November 2008, Barack Obama spent $8.21 per person in the state, while Senator John McCain spent $4.82.)

But the Republican campaigns, even with help from super PACs, haven’t raised enough money to maintain the levels of advertising spending achieved in Florida throughout every state.

Mr. Romney, to be sure, has had healthier advertising budgets than his rivals, but the story is more about how little candidates like Mr. Santorum are spending than about Mr. Romney’s steamrolling the competition.

And as for Mr. Romney’s prodigious-seeming edge in the Chicago area, that is a little exaggerated, too. His campaign and super PAC have spent about 25 cents per person there — less than the 35 cents that they have spent in downstate Illinois. And since the Chicago media market is more expensive than the media market downstate, even after accounting for its larger population, the discrepancy is probably larger in terms of how many advertisements are actually reaching the voters.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.