MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And Robert Siegel.
The race for president is a national contest in name only. In reality, the candidates are fighting over eight or nine swing states around the country. Millions of dollars are pouring into this effort to win over the few remaining undecided voters.
BLOCK: The price tag so far, campaigns and outside groups have spent about $400 million on TV ads alone. With six weeks to go, some swing states have already seen twice as much ad spending as in the entire 2008 cycle.
NPR's Ari Shapiro spent the last week in Colorado Springs looking at the impact of all that spending. This morning, he reported on the economic consequences of the advertising flood. Now, he has this look at how the ads are going over with their audience.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: If you're a public radio listener, and I assume you are, then you know that pledge drives really only take over your radio during MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Late at night or in the middle of the day, you're generally pretty safer from the fundraising onslaught. Traditionally, campaign ads were the same way, political commercials would fill the morning and evening news, sure, but they wouldn't show up during "The Young & The Restless."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: Not on "Let's Make A Deal."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LET'S MAKE A DEAL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's a new living room.
SHAPIRO: Not on "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HONEY BOO BOO")
JUNE SHANNON: Pageants are very, very expensive. It is not a cheap sport, by any means.
SHAPIRO: Yet last week, in Colorado Springs, presidential campaign ads appeared in all three places. That's according to research by the ad tracking firm Kantar Media CMAG and personal experience by this reporter watching TV in Colorado. And all that advertising is augmented by thousands of volunteers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We were just wondering if Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan or the Republican ticket can count on your support in November's election.
SHAPIRO: In an office near downtown Colorado Springs, a few dozen people are working a phone bank under signs that say Colorado for Romney and Romney equals jobs. There's a whiteboard listing the volunteers who've made more than 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 calls and that last category has only one name.
BRUCE REDMANN: I'm Bruce Redmann. I live here in the Springs and I'm retired.
SHAPIRO: What do you see when you turn on the TV nowadays?
REDMANN: Turn them off, both sides. I'm sorry. They just - both sides of it just turn me off. They're, you know, 10 percent truth and 90 percent garbage.
SHAPIRO: If you count negative ads as garbage, then his assessment is pretty generous. According to data that Kantar Media CMAG collected for NPR and PBS' NewsHour, almost 1,500 political ads ran in Colorado Springs last week. About 50 of those ads were positive. Not 50 percent, 50 ads out of 1,500. Coke and Pepsi could never get away with that. But political ads are different.
On Election Day, it's OK if voters hate a candidate, as long as they hate his opponent just a little bit more. Kyle Blakeley is runs a Colorado Springs advertising firm.
KYLE BLAKELEY: The old adage is that negative advertising hurts both candidates, it just hurts the one doing it a little less than the guy he's going after.
SHAPIRO: In this race, negativity is about the only thing the Romney and Obama ads have in common. Everyone agrees the two sides are executing very different advertising strategies. Democratic media consultant Tad Devine says the president needs a diverse coalition to win: women, young people, minorities, well-educated white voters.
TAD DEVINE: Those groups are very different in terms of who they are. And in order to reach them, you have to go to different places, particularly when you're talking about television advertising. They're very discrete audiences.
SHAPIRO: And that's one reason there's so much Obama advertising on cable now. Cable stations target specific audiences - Spike for young men, Lifetime for women, Univision for Latinos. In contrast, Romney's ads use a much more universal message. Rich Beeson is the campaign's political director.
RICH BEESON: It doesn't matter where you are or who you are, having a good job, that's important to every demographic group. You know, as opposed to President Obama who goes in and is, you know, who plays class warfare or race warfare or, you know, any number of things to divide people.
SHAPIRO: The Obama strategy has a precedent. In 2010, Democrats barely won Colorado's Senate seat by building the largest gender gap of any Senate race in the country. In 2012, Democrats are shooting for an encore. That niche targeting permeates everything the Obama campaign does, not just advertising.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN CALL FOR THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN)
SHAPIRO: At an Obama field office in Colorado Springs, college students and a few high schoolers have gathered to make calls. Kate Henjum is a high school senior not old enough to vote.
KATE HENJUM: Right. I'm only 17 years old and my birthday's May 6, so I miss it by six full months.
SHAPIRO: Just like the campaign, she says when she talks to voters, here message is tailored to a specific demographic group.
HENJUM: And so when I have those conversations with a woman, it is about what is Barack Obama doing to help women. What is it Barack Obama is doing to help youth? What is Barack Obama doing to help the Latino community?
SHAPIRO: According to research by Kantar Media CMAG, the Obama campaign has 20 different spots on the air to reach all these different groups. That number is unprecedented.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Every woman who believes decisions about our bodies and our health care should be our own, is a nonpartisan AARP says Obamacare cracks down...
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (Foreign language spoken)
SHAPIRO: The Romney campaign has a smaller number of spots in rotation and the message...
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...will add 12 million new jobs in four years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ....fewer Americans are working today than when President Obama took office.
MITT ROMNEY: ...and make sure we protect jobs for the American people.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Barack Obama.
SHAPIRO: The sun is just setting behind Pike's Peak on one of the last summer evenings in Colorado Springs. A few dozen tables have local flowers in vases and a couple hundred people have brought potluck food made with local ingredients for the second annual Community Dinner.
BONNIE SIMON: I am Bonnie Simon, and I live here in Colorado Springs. And I run a small business that promotes other small businesses.
SHAPIRO: She voted for President Obama the last time. And this time, she's genuinely torn.
SIMON: I don't know that I can, in good conscience, vote for the Republican Party. I mean, it just - it seems to me that they don't think much of women. But I don't know if I can vote for the Democrats, because I don't know that they think much of small business people. So, you know, the things that I hear from both sides, they do affect me. But there is, you know, it's like a tug of war at this point. I don't know who to vote for.
SHAPIRO: This is the reason the campaigns are pouring money into swing states, more than $2 million last week in Colorado alone. It doesn't matter if the advertising saturation makes the vast majority of voters throw their remote control at the television screen. The vast majority of people know who they'll vote for. It will all be worth it, down to the last penny, if the candidates can just capture that rarest, most elusive species, the genuinely undecided voter.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.