President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney and their allies so far have spent a jaw-dropping $87 million on TV ads in just a handful of presidential battleground states, an early and unprecedented explosion of spending for a general election still a full five months away.

The avalanche of ad dollars is larger in size and scope at this point that in any previous campaign, fueled by the closeness of the race, a proliferation of deep-pocketed independent groups and an eagerness on both sides to frame the debate before summer when voters pay little attention.

“The presidential race has been surprising to us — the amount of it and the early entry,” said Mike Lake, sales director for KCRG-TV, the largest station in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “But this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Viewers in that metro area of 260,000 people have each been subject to about 330 ads already, according to the Iowa-based media firm Strategic America, and the largely rural state has already seen $6 million in presidential campaign advertising since late April, with four of its metropolitan areas ranking in the top 20 for spending nationwide.

Television ads are just one component of a presidential campaign’s multimillion-dollar effort to woo voters; the Romney and Obama teams will also spend heavily on tools from digital targeting to field operations to direct mail. But the emergence of independent groups known as super political action committees has significantly crowded the airwaves, thanks to a trio of federal court decisions including Citizens United that loosened campaign finance restrictions, allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to spend freely on political ads of their own.

The crush of spending indicates that TV ads still remain a powerful tool for campaigns even at a time when fewer Americans are watching broadcast TV in real time given technological advances.

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