In the race for the presidency, the little guy is winning -- at least among Minnesota broadcasters trying to profit from campaign commercials.
While a record-breaking $3.3 billion is expected to be spent nationwide on political ads this season, relatively little of that cash is flowing into the Twin Cities TV market. But it's boom times for Minnesota stations in smaller markets along the borders of battleground states Wisconsin and Iowa.
Campaigns have spent less than expected in the Twin Cities because President Obama appears to have a sizable lead in the metro, said Rob Hubbard, general manager of KSTP, Ch. 5.
"TV advertising is not going to make someone a 40-point winner, but in close races, TV ads can swing things a percent or two," he said.
Unfortunately for Hubbard, only 4 percent of his audience lives in hotly contested Wisconsin. That helps explain why Twin Cities TV stations have collected a relatively modest $3 million from commercials supporting either Obama or Mitt Romney, according to data from the Campaign Media Analysts Group and interpreted by the Washington Post.
Stations in the much smaller Rochester market, which dips into northern Iowa, have pulled in $2 million for presidential ads. Put another way, the campaigns are spending a whopping $13.83 per household in the Rochester market, compared with $1.71 in the Twin Cities.
The station benefiting the most in that market is KIMT, a CBS affiliate just over the border in Mason City, Iowa -- the heart of what NBC called the seventh-most-combative site last week in the presidential race. Political spots account for 60 to 70 percent of all ads on KIMT in the past few months, said general manager Steve Martinson.
For border stations, "it's the perfect storm," said David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who specializes in election law.
Both Obama and Mitt Romney plan to spend a modest amount on ads in the Twin Cities market in the final days of the campaign. But an official with the Obama campaign said its ads are "targeted to Wisconsin."
At one point, it looked like the Twin Cities' reach into its eastern neighbor would generate cash on the Minnesota side, just as it did during the attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last spring. Colleen Ryan of Minneapolis-based media consulting firm Campbell Mithun predicted earlier this year that the Twin Cities' "political heat" would be a six out of 10.
Now Ryan believes the Twin Cities only merits a three.
"I don't think a lot of local stations are going to hit their expected numbers," she said. "It just didn't pan out."
Fortunately for the Hubbard family, their St. Paul-based broadcast company also owns KAAL-TV in Austin, Minn., which serves more than seven counties in northern Iowa.
About 25 percent of the station's advertising comes from political groups, said general manager David Harbert, with Obama supporters accounting for most of the presidential spots.
It's the opposite at Mankato's KEYC-TV. General manager Dennis Wahlstrom said this station has aired several hundred pro-Romney ads in the past month but not a single Obama commercial.
It's no jackpot, however
One might think the situation means a jackpot for these smaller stations. But by law, stations must offer political candidates their very lowest rates -- and they can't turn anyone down. That means there isn't enough airtime for local businesses that pay more.
"On one hand, it's an honor to be in a state that might decide the election," said Martinson in Mason City. "On the other hand, I've got residents here trying to sell furniture and cars. When their ads can't run, it takes a toll on them."
While one might think many are fed up with the barrage of ads, Martinson said the KIMT phone lines have not been lit up by frustrated viewers.
"I know this sounds odd, but I think Iowans feel kind of privileged to be such an important part of the process," he said. "This is a time where the rest of the country is taking our temperature."
Staff writers Alejandra Matos and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin