MANCHESTER, N.H. - Four years ago, Granite State residents were weathering a deluge of television ads featuring Mitt Romney, John McCain, and other GOP White House hopefuls making their pitch.
Today, only five weeks and two days remain before voters here cast their ballots in the first-in-the-nation primary, and the airwaves are stunningly devoid of campaign spots. Republican presidential candidates have cut their television expenditures, traditionally the bulk of their advertising spending, by nearly 77 percent.
“Anyone here with a TV can see a very obvious difference between now and then,’’ said Andrew Smith, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
According to a Globe analysis of public files from WMUR-TV - New Hampshire’s largest commercial television station and the hub for almost all of the presidential campaign ads broadcast across the state - GOP candidates have spent just $923,385 on television advertising, compared with more than $3.9 million at this point during the 2008 cycle.
Two third-party groups have spent $208,590 in New Hampshire, all in support of Jon Huntsman, with the bulk of the money coming from “Our Destiny,’’ a superPAC that supports the former Utah governor.
‘It makes sense they’d advertise online because it’s the most targeted.’Rob Saliterman Google political ad sales
The spots have also begun airing much later. Whereas Romney began launching ads as early as February 2007 during the last campaign, Ron Paul - who was the first major candidate to take to the airwaves here - did not do so until this July.
There has been little consensus among experts who try to explain this considerable falloff, but most agree Romney has played a significant role.
The former Massachusetts governor, who was one of the best-financed candidates in the Republican field last election, largely drove the advertising war in New Hampshire by spending more than $2.8 million on television spots by this point in the run-up to the tightly-contested primary.
In addition, the Democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was beginning to inundate the airwaves, creating a cacophony of campaign come-ons.
Now, Romney again has a hefty war chest. But with a commanding lead in the polls here, he has had little reason to spend cash on ads. Meanwhile, most of his opponents do not have the money to spare, and those who do - like Rick Perry and other third-party groups - have mostly shied away from making big ad buys given Romney’s dominance.
“For most people, TV ads are going to constitute a large part of their political awareness during the campaign,’’ Smith said. “You talk with folks around the state and, because there has been such little advertising, the common complaint is that there’s nothing going on, it’s a boring race.’’
Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media/CMAG, a private firm that tracks political advertising, believes the paucity might best be explained by the unusually high number of debates.
“They’ve combined to chum up the news cycle and run the clock out for much of the fall,’’ Goldstein said.
Republicans such as Newt Gingrich have benefited from the 12 debates, which have boosted national exposure and helped catapult them in the polls despite relatively weak campaign apparatus.
The emergence of new media has played a role, too, with campaigns able to better focus their advertising efforts. For example, Gingrich recently bought Google ads that say “Support the candidate that can win’’ every time a voter in New Hampshire or Iowa searches for Herman Cain.
“To the extent campaigns want to reach voters where they are, it makes sense they’d advertise online because it’s the most targeted and measurable form of paid media,’’ said Rob Saliterman, who heads Google’s political ad sales on the Republican side.
Goldstein said television advertising should intensify in the showdown between President Obama and the GOP nominee.
“In a general election, you’re looking for passive, less partisan voters who have not made up their mind or may not vote,’’ he said. “You find those in large numbers through television.’’