Will the Ad Wars Make Any Difference?

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Here comes the flood. The Obama and Romney campaigns, and their allied super PACs, are on course to spend more than $1 billion on television advertising in 2012. But only about half that money has already been spent. In my new magazine story, now available online to subscribers, I look at the campaign ad wars filling this three-week period between the party conventions and the October debates. “A deluge is coming,” Steven Law, CEO of the Karl Rove-advised super PAC American Crossroads explained to me. Smart phones, Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized media, but campaigns still play out as they did a generation ago–in thousands of 30 second increments on television screens across America. In that area, the Romney campaign will have the advantage, thanks in no small part to American Crossroads and groups like it. The Obama team remains undeterred: “We will be outspent, but our grassroots operations is how we’ll win,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina tells TIME.

But while Obama is enjoying a post-convention bounce in the polls, Romney advisers believe the campaign home stretch will work in their favor. Undecided votes are likely to break decisively against Obama, argues Romney media strategist Stuart Stevens (never mind that they didn’t do that for John Kerry in 2004). And even as he bounces, Obama has had trouble breaking above the 50 percent mark. “He has just not been acquiring new voters,” Stevens says.

And then there’s Romney’s cash advantage. What no one can say, though, is how much money might be too much. With all these ads clogging the airwaves in just nine swing states across the country–and with perhaps just a few million voters still undecided– is it overkill? Will that last few million of spending in the Columbus market fall on deaf ears? And if so, what do campaign insiders expect to determine the winner of a close race on Election Day? Read my story to find out.