Outside Groups For Romney Coordinate TV Ad Buys

Since April, more than 825,000 presidential campaign ads have been broadcast in the battleground states. Oddly, the dominant Republican voice on TV hasn't been that of nominee Mitt Romney. The big advertisers are four heavily funded SuperPacs and tax-exempt groups.

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OK. Since April, the effective start of the presidential general election campaign, more than 825,000 presidential campaign ads have been broadcast in the key battleground states. The cost is more than half a billion dollars, and there's still almost a month to go. Surprisingly, the main Republican voice on TV this campaign has not been that of GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Instead, the big advertisers are four heavily funded superPACs and tax exempt groups. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: From April through September, nine out of 10 pro-Obama ads came from the Obama campaign itself, financed with campaign contributions of $5,000 or less. The ads have been relentless.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

OVERBY: But the other tagline...

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

MITT ROMNEY: I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.

OVERBY: ...not on TV so much. Between the primary fight and Romney's relatively weak fundraising, his campaign is far behind President Obama in the advertising war. But Romney got help

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Americans For Prosperity is responsible...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: American Future Fund is responsibility...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Crossroads GPS is...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Restore Our Future is responsible...

OVERBY: Outside groups, 27 of them, collectively outspent the Romney campaign nearly two-to-one. NPR and PBS NewsHour used data from Kantar Media CMAG to analyze the money behind the air war. Almost half of all the pro-Romney spending was by four heavy hitters: Restore Our Future, Crossroads GPS, and American Crossroads co-founded by strategist Karl Rove, and Americans For Prosperity backed by billionaires David and Charles Koch.

These groups have no contribution limits. For Rove's operation, more than three-quarters of the contributions are from million-dollar donors. Some give 10 million. The pro-Romney ad campaign has been a tag team effort, many of the outside groups working together to close the advertising gap with the Obama campaign.

At the center is Karl Rove's Crossroads operation. Spokesman Jonathan Collegio describes how groups coordinate.

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: They ultimately kind of map out where everybody's going to be over time, where they think they're going to be. And then if they have to pull back, they let everybody know. This way other groups can go in and fill in the gaps.

OVERBY: The most explicit coordination is between Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity. AFP president Tim Phillips says it started soon after New Year's.

TIM PHILLIPS: From that period on, we've definitely talked to Crossroads.

OVERBY: It's an unlikely partnership. Rove's groups concentrate on supporting the Republican Party. AFP with its benefactors, the libertarian Koch brothers, focuses on economic issues. But they have a common mission: attacking President Obama.

PHILLIPS: We may not always agree on messages. Or we may not agree on which ad makes the most sense. And, frankly, we don't even talk about it a lot of times. But we do talk about the timing of it.

OVERBY: The timing, the way AFP and Crossroads GPS schedule their ad buys. First, one covers a state for several weeks and then the other takes over.

Political scientist Michael Franz at Bowdoin College sees it in the data. He's with the Wesleyan Media Project which tracks political advertising. He used Kantar MediaCMAG data to look at Colorado.

MICHAEL FRANZ: AFP was on the air way back in April. And then they went off the air and GPS comes on the air for five weeks. They leave and AFP comes back for three weeks.

OVERBY: And so on through the summer, into the fall and across the battleground states. Ads like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Tell President Obama, support the AFP jobs agenda.

OVERBY: Followed by a similar message from Crossroads GPS.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Tell him, for real job growth, cut the debt.

OVERBY: Phillips says the conservative teamwork is a success.

PHILLIPS: I think the scale of the effort from outside groups and the level of cooperation is unprecedented. It's new.

OVERBY: And at Crossroads, Jonathan Collegio says they too are happy with the results.

COLLEGIO: We believe that we have had pressure on the Obama campaign, virtually nonstop since the convention. And we believe that that's having an impact on his numbers.

OVERBY: It's also having an impact on transparency in politics. Undisclosed donors account for 56 percent of those outside, pro-Romney dollars. That's because AFP, Crossroads GPS, and many of the other groups operate as 501c tax-exempt organizations who keep their donors secret.

Sheila Krumholz is director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: The spending by those 501c groups is the big black hole.

OVERBY: More about disclosure, or its absence, tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Peter Overby, NPR News Washington.

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