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Ad Watch Rematch: 6 Swing States, 1 Half-Hour, 87 Political Ads

In recent days, we've been reading about some unusual ways people are trying to get their political messages across in the feverish lead-up to Election Day: Political blimps. Conspiracy-laden DVDs. Talking greeting card-style mailers that play gaffes.

But the political messaging that may seem most inescapable is the tried-and-true TV ad. You probably don't need a reminder that swing states especially are being flooded with them. Since June, more than 915,000 presidential ads alone have aired on broadcast and cable TV — up more than 44 percent from 2008, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

Add to that ads for House, Senate and local races and you're looking at quite a barrage. So what's it like to watch TV in swing states right now?

We decided to ask the team of public media reporters who have been contributing to our Message Machine project to weigh in — giving us a window into six tossup states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.

In a similar experiment last month, I (cruelly, perhaps) made us all sit through ABC's Dancing With the Stars to track how many ads we saw in an hour of prime time. Turns out, it wasn't many.

As campaign ad expert Travis Ridout of Washington State University explained, a lot of the advertising time in popular national shows like Dancing With the Stars is bought up by the big guns — Pepsi, Honda, Wal-Mart, etc. Political campaigns like to be a bit more targeted. He said campaign advertisers particularly like the local news.

He wasn't kidding.

On Wednesday, the Message Machine reporters and I all watched a top-rated news broadcast in each of our markets at 11 p.m. Eastern, or 10 p.m. Central and Mountain. And in roughly a half-hour of late night news, we saw 87 political ads, compared to just 12 total in an hour last month. Here's how it broke down:

Colorado (Denver's KUSA): 15 political ads out of 25 ads tracked
7 presidential ads
7 House ads
1 state issue ad (marijuana legalization)

KUNC's Kirk Siegler took the prize for tracking presidential ads, seeing four ads from President Obama's campaign, two Mitt Romney ads and an anti-Obama American Crossroads ad. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, Denver has been the top market for presidential ads this month, with 9,950 ads.

Florida (WTSP in Tampa): 6 political ads out of 21 ads tracked
4 presidential ads
1 Senate ad
1 state issue ad (abortion funds)

Ad tracker Scott Finn of WUSF, who saw three pro-Romney ads and one Obama ad, says: "My takeaway: Romney is trying to cement his small lead in Florida. He MUST win Florida to have a chance. Obama appears to be pulling back on his Florida investment — just staying in enough to force Romney and his allies to spend here."

Iowa (KCCI in Des Moines): 13 political ads out of 23 ads tracked
3 presidential ads
7 House ads
3 state Legislature ads

Iowa Public Radio's Sarah McCammon, who tracked ads in Des Moines, said it was a fast-paced effort: "The ads ... were heavily political; I could barely keep up entering data into a very short form." She was treated to a heavy helping of ads in the race for Iowa's 3rd Congressional District — "a rare race pitting two incumbents against each other because of redistricting (Democrat Leonard Boswell and Republican Tom Latham)."

New Hampshire (Manchester's WMUR): 17 political ads out of 19 ads tracked
4 presidential ads
8 House ads
5 governor's race ads

Josh Rogers of New Hampshire Public Radio had the pleasure of tracking the fewest nonpolitical ads — only two during the entire news broadcast. "All the major races had ads by candidates and by political action committees. Most of the ads were negative, but pretty much all the candidates also ran one positive spot," he reports. A good chunk of the ads focused on the state's competitive race for governor.

Ohio (WBNS in Columbus): 20 political ads out of 27 ads tracked
5 presidential ads
7 Senate ads
2 House ads
6 local race ads

Unsurprisingly, Karen Kasler in the uber-swing state of Ohio won the bragging rights (er, complaining rights?), seeing the most political ads. Kasler, the chief of the Statehouse News Bureau for Ohio Public Radio and Television, pointed out an NBC analysis showing more money being spent on political ads in Ohio than anywhere else: $181 million so far, about one-fifth of the national total of $883 million. In Columbus, that translates into 6,647 ads this month — or 333 a day. On top of that, Karen even saw an ad for the local sheriff's race!

Virginia (WRC in Washington, D.C.): 16 political ads out of 26 ads tracked
4 presidential ads
7 Senate ads
5 Maryland issue ads (same-sex marriage and gambling)

Living in a Northern Virginia suburb of D.C., I kind of cheated, in the sense that five of the ads I tracked pertained to campaigns in neighboring Maryland — ballot questions I have no ability to even vote on. But the presidential ads were squarely aimed at swing-state Virginia voters, and the heat was really on in the close race for U.S. Senate between two former Virginia governors.

One big takeaway for the evening's ad tracking came from Sarah: "At least when we did our Dancing With the Stars ad watch party, we got a little break from politics! (Although we had to watch celebrities dance; I'm not sure which is worse, honestly). But not so tonight. Not surprisingly this close to the election in a swing state, politics dominated not just the ads, but also the programming."

Or, as Scott put it: "I never thought I'd say this: rather watch Dancing With the Stars."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Erica Ryan