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Will Obama Regret His Decision Not to Buy Ads in Michigan?

With the financial balance of power shifting toward the Republicans, Democrats are understandably alarmed that a deluge of cash from outside groups and Wall Street could swamp Obama’s reelection efforts. As an initial step, the Obama campaign has concentrated their expenditures on a smaller number of swing states, ensuring that they at least remain competitive in the markets they consider most important.

But when you concentrate resources, some areas end up short-changed, and the decision to narrow the playing field has left Obama without substantial purchases in several media markets. According to The Washington Post’s ad tracker, Obama has not aired ads  in the expensive Washington media market, even though Crossroads GPS has already spent more than $2 million. Arizona was floated as a possible pick-up opportunity for Obama, but Obama hasn’t run any ads in the potentially competitive southwestern state. In contrast, Crossroads, which has money to spare, is running ads in Michigan, a state that voted for Obama by 16 percentage points in 2008 but that might be tightening according to recent polls.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Romney/Crossroads effort in Michigan will pay off. But the Obama campaign is taking a big risk in letting Romney and Crossroads continue unimpeded. In 2008, McCain took a similar strategy to compensate for deficient financial resources; he barely contested Obama’s efforts in Indiana, Montana, and Georgia, but only fought at a slight disadvantage in many of the more traditional swing states.

And it turns out, the money mattered. In demographically similar areas with varied ad spending, like the decidedly monochromatic Upper Midwest, the balance of ad spending correlated with Obama and McCain's relative performances. As a result of Obama’s decision to invest in Nebraska’s second congressional district and North Dakota, Obama wound up substantially outspending McCain in the Fargo and Omaha media markets, which happen to cut across state lines into Minnesota and Iowa. In Fargo, Obama outspent McCain by nearly 3:1, while he outspent McCain by a less impressive 25 percent in Omaha. Elsewhere in Iowa and Minnesota, McCain actually outspent Obama. In Minneapolis, McCain swamped a meager Obama effort by a 2:1 margin, while McCain outspent Obama by 50 percent in Iowa, although much of that advantage was concentrated in Davenport.

The effect of imbalanced spending was striking. In the Omaha and Fargo media markets, where Obama outspent McCain, Obama surged ahead by 16 percentage points compared to 2004. Elsewhere in Minnesota and Iowa, Obama’s gains were less impressive—just 6 and 9 percentage points, respectively. And McCain’s expensive efforts in Minnesota were also felt in Wisconsin. Obama only improved by 5 percentage points in the Wisconsin counties in the Minneapolis or Duluth media markets, but Obama improved by 14 percentage points elsewhere in the state, where Obama outspent McCain by 40 percent. Obama’s uneven gains followed media market lines, which are indicated by bolded county borders

To be sure, heavy ad spending doesn’t guarantee that Romney can make similar gains. It doesn't always come down to money. Obama outspent McCain decisively in the Florida Panhandle, yet Obama still did even worse than Kerry among those evangelical, culturally southern, rural white voters. Instead, Obama’s biggest gains in Florida came in the more contested Orlando area, where Obama was bolstered by the influx of Latino voters over the last decade. As a general rule, Obama’s biggest gains came in two areas: demographically favorable metropolitan areas with large numbers of well-educated whites and minorities, like northern Virginia, or areas abundant with persuadable voters where Obama’s advertisements were uncontested, like Indiana, the Red River Valley, Omaha, and western Montana.

In 2012, Michigan fits both categories. According to the 2008 exit polls, 50 percent of Michigan voters were whites without a college degree, including 40 percent of Obama’s 2008 supporters. Although Obama won by 16 percent, much of Obama’s lead was built on persuadable Bush voters, unlike other states where Obama capitalized on favorable demographics. Democrats are keen to point out that Obama’s support for the auto-bailout should help him in Michigan, but there is no guarantee that the auto-bailout message survives persistent and uncontested negative advertisements.

The Obama campaign’s confidence in Michigan is understandable given their 2008 performance and the auto-bailout trump card. Even so, permitting Romney/Crossroads to air uncontested advertisements in areas with a large number of moderate, persuadable voters is dangerous. The Obama campaign would be wise to keep a close eye on Michigan and contest the state more vigorously if Romney starts to make gains.