Thursday, September 9, 2004 Posted: 10:32 AM EDT (1432 GMT)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- After months of pledging to contest President Bush in every region of the country, Sen. John Kerry and Democrats are limiting television advertising to 14 battleground states as the fall campaign opens.
The shift bumps GOP-leaning Missouri, Colorado, Arizona and several Southern states off the political playing field -- at least for now -- and gives Bush reason to consider moving money from some of those states to others that historically trend Democratic.
Both presidential campaigns are honing their strategies now at the start of the election homestretch. That's when budgets grow tighter, forcing campaigns to pick and choose where to play.
Kerry's campaign tried to make the most of its money by reserving $50 million worth of advertising time in 20 states through Election Day. It's a strategy that will save dollars by locking in current advertising rates and ensure airtime when it's in high demand near Election Day. It also will alert Kerry's allies, who legally aren't allowed to coordinate with the campaign, to his strategy.
However, a close look at the advertising plans reveal that all the states won't get equal treatment and that the priorities are 14 states in which the Kerry campaign or the Democratic Party will air ads this month.
The Kerry campaign has bought time in New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Michigan and Oregon. Those are the campaign's 10 most competitive states, ranking at the top of Bush's advertising priorities as well.
The Democratic National Committee is airing commercials in most of those states to keep Kerry competitive with Bush's large ad budgets. In addition, the DNC is on the air in Maine, Washington state, Nevada and Minnesota. Nevada is a GOP-leaning state Kerry would like to win. The other three, especially dead-even Minnesota, voted Democratic in 2000, and Kerry can't afford to lose them. (Special Report: America Votes 2004)
"So much for all the talk of expanding the political map," said Bush strategist Matthew Dowd.
Kerry strategist Tad Devine said the campaign had several million dollars in advertising time reserved for Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas, which he called a sign of commitment to those battlegrounds. But the ads aren't scheduled to air until October, if then. No money has been given to TV stations for the October buys.
"We're at the point of the campaign where we had to make an honest first cut, but our options are still open in all these states," Devine said.
Virginia wasn't included at all.
Kerry and the DNC spent at least $20 million trying to put those seven states in play, and the candidate logged 25 visits to them, money and time that could have gone elsewhere. Campaign political director Steve Elmendorf said the money was well spent because the states are still in play.
"You can make the case that paid media is not the only way to play. Field organizations and candidate travel also shows you're committed to the states," he said.
The most logical reason for pushing states to the second tier is that polls show Kerry trailing Bush in those states -- by double digits in Missouri and Arizona, for instance.
But there were other considerations. Kerry's campaign has determined that voters in some of his targeted states will react to ads that criticize Bush late in the campaign. Thus, they'll get money late, if ever.
Reducing the map of competitive states could work against Kerry because:
Of the 14 states put in play by Kerry and his party this month, nine were won by Democrat Al Gore in 2000, three by less than 10,000 votes. That means Kerry has more turf to protect.
If he no longer has to defend the seven GOP-leaning states, Bush may shift money into battleground states that tend to favor Democrats, such as Michigan and Minnesota, to increase pressure on Kerry.
The GOP-leaning states that won't see advertising until October are worth 73 electoral votes. Add that to the solidly Republican states and Bush would have 217 electoral votes. Winning two of his three big targets
Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania -- plus a single other state would put him over the 270 needed to win the election. That's not a simple task, but easier if he gets the seven GOP-leaning states handed to him.
Devine said Kerry is doing better in Ohio and Florida than Gore was in September 2000. Bush can't afford to lose either state.
"This is not about counting states, it's about counting electoral votes," said Devine who, for months, talked about the large number of states in play.