Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his allies are banking heavily on a high-risk, high-reward media strategy in the final weeks of the campaign, hoping that burying President Barack Obama in ads will give them a crucial edge on Election Day.
Ad purchases in the presidential race doubled or in some cases tripled last week in swing states such as Iowa, Colorado, Florida and Virginia, tracking data show. The surge is being driven by Romney and well-funded allies, who decided against running more ads earlier in the campaign in favor of a big bang at the end.
Restore Our Future, a super PAC dedicated to helping Romney, has booked $14 million worth of ads in nine states for the final week of October — more than it spent on ads during the entire month of September. The group is also ramping up its spending, airing a mix of ads criticizing Obama and extolling Romney in Iowa, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia.
Charles R. Spies, the super PAC's treasurer, said conservative groups "have been very effective in leveling the playing field" with Obama. "That effort will continue at an increasing level going forward," he said.
The GOP effort has gained momentum with Romney's advance in the polls since the first presidential debate in Denver, where Obama turned in a widely panned performance. The Oct. 3 event sparked an influx of donations to Romney's campaign and to conservative groups supporting him, giving them more resources for the final push, strategists said.
The ramped-up advertising by Republicans left Obama behind his GOP foes in total ad expenditures last week for the first time since summer, though he has massive cash reserves after raising $181 million in September. Obama and his key outside ally, the Priorities USA Action super PAC, have kept up a steady barrage ads attacking Romney in Ohio and other battlegrounds.
Democrats and even some Republicans argue that the Romney team, particularly the campaign itself, wasted a key opportunity by ceding the ad advantage to Obama from late August through September, which coincided with a boost in the polls for the president.
Brad Todd, a Republican media strategist, said he suspects that the big push at the end is designed to reach voters displeased with Obama but unwilling to embrace Romney — fence-sitters who have delayed making up their minds.
"Advertising at the end typically makes the biggest difference to those voters," Todd said.
Since the Republican convention in late August, the Obama side has run 28 percent more ads than Romney and all the groups behind him combined, according to estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG. Democrats spent slightly more than Republicans during that time, taking advantage of rules mandating cheaper ad time for campaigns and also seeking out less expensive airtime at different times of day.
But Romney and GOP groups are now flooding the airwaves in force, spending about 50 percent more on ads than Obama this week, according to tracking data. The surge comes at a fortuitous time for Romney, who is now even or ahead of Obama in many national and swing-state polls.
The Romney campaign declined to discuss its ad strategy in detail. An aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal plans said the campaign is likely to increase its volume further as Election Day approaches.
The Obama campaign also declined to comment.
The final 3 1/2 weeks of ad spending is likely to be the most concentrated in U.S. political history, in part because the field of battle is narrowly focused on nine key swing states. CMAG, the ad tracking firm, estimated Friday that about half as many television markets feature presidential campaign ads this year compared with 2008, even though the volume has skyrocketed.
Recent spending figures show a surprising move of resources into Florida, the biggest ad battleground, with 10 media markets and some of the most expensive airtime in the country. In the first week of October, one of every four dollars spent by the Obama campaign on broadcast advertising went to Florida; for the American Crossroads super PAC and its affliate, Crossroads GPS, nearly one of every three dollars was spent there.
Obama and Romney have gone up and down in Sunshine State polls in recent months, with the president posting strong numbers before the Denver debate but Romney gaining since.
The two sides have spent more than $100 million on ads in the state, with a slight advantage to Republicans.
Tad Devine, a top Democratic strategist, argues that in Florida, the Obama campaign "forced Romney to defend what should have been a Republican state."
Florida is followed closely in combined spending by Virginia ($96 million through Oct. 7), Ohio ($93 million) and North Carolina ($70 million), CMAG estimates show.
Small interest groups are also getting into the mix. The American Energy Alliance will air $2 million worth of TV and radio ads in coal-country states through early November attacking Obama's energy policies, according to spokesman Benjamin Cole.
Many strategists expect the tone of many ads to change markedly during the final stretch as the campaigns shift from attacking each other to presenting a "closing argument" for their election. That time has not quite arrived yet, however, as attack ads still dominate.
The Obama camp rolled out a pair of ads Friday attacking Romney for his stand on contraception services and his defense of paying a 14 percent tax rate on $20 million in personal income. "Lower tax rates for him than us," the spot says. "Is that the way to grow America?"
Romney, meanwhile, is bombarding battlegrounds with ads attacking Obama's economic policies. Restore Our Future is running $6 million worth of spots focused on unemployment in Florida, Iowa and Virginia.
"We're told we're going forward, even as we fall further behind," the ad's narrator says. "This is the new normal. This is President Obama's economy."