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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Advertising Money: McCain vs. Obama

Q: Who spent more money on advertising, McCain or Obama?

A: Overall, Obama has outspent McCain by nearly 3-to-1, but in the closing week it’s been closer to 5-to-1.


According to figures supplied by the campaign Media Analysis Group of TNS Media Intelligence, Obama has spent an estimated $280 million on TV advertising since Jan. 1 of last year through Nov. 1.

McCain has spent less than half as much, just under $134 million, according to CMAG, which tracks advertising in the top TV markets.

Those figures include amounts spent in both the primary and the general election campaigns. Since the two candidates clinched the nominations of their respective parties, the spending disparity has been greater, reflecting Obama’s greater ability to attract private donations, and his decision to do without public funds or the spending limits that go with them.

During the 60 days ending Nov. 1, Obama has outspent McCain on television by better than 2.5-to-1. And in the most recent week, Obama has spent $23.6 million to McCain’s $4.8 million, a spending advantage of nearly 5-to-1.

That’s a Big Difference. What Gives?

There’s no question that Sen. Barack Obama, who opted out of the public financing system, has raised more money than anyone in the history of U.S. politics. As a result, Sen. John McCain, who opted to receive public financing, was at a stark financial disadvantage to his Democratic rival.

As we reported earlier, public financing limits candidates to spending $84.1 million on their general campaign. The money is provided to them in the form of a grant from the U.S. Treasury. Candidates can still solicit private donations, but the money can only be used toward legal and accounting expenses. The money cannot be used to fund advertising, events planning, transportation, salaries or any of the other myriad campaign expenses.

Obama’s choice to turn down public financing and McCain’s choice to accept it helped create a relatively large campaign fundraising disparity. As of Oct. 15, the Obama-Biden campaign had received $522 million in contributions, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Compare that with the $375 million raised by the McCain-Palin campaign. Both campaigns combined are expected to raise more than $1 billion, and when Green, Libertarian, Independent and Constitution party candidates are included, campaign fundraising has already passed the $1 billion mark.

But the candidates don’t work alone. In some cases they work alongside their party committees, which are allowed to solicit private donations as well. For example, a number of the McCain-Palin ads were jointly funded by the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee, which helped make up for at least some of McCain’s shortfall to Obama. As of the latest reporting cycle, the Democratic National Committee had taken in $206 million, while the RNC had taken in $337 million.

— Emi Kolawole


Mosk, Matthew. "In Campaign 2008, Candidates Starting Earlier, Spending More." The Washington Post. 7 Feb. 2007.

Banking on Becoming President. 27 Oct. 2008. OpenSecrets.org.