You'd never know it from the avalanche of TV ads, direct-mail pieces and phone calls that voters will receive in October, but most campaigns have only another week or two to change the likely outcome of their contests.
[IMGCAP(1)]Sure, the midterm elections are still five weeks away, but the combination of early voting in many states and the difficulty of cutting through the coming clutter means that the best opportunity for campaigns to change voter attitudes is quickly coming to an end.
More than 30 states allow voters to cast their ballots well before Election Day. Early voting begins Oct. 9 in Arizona and Oct. 11 in Illinois. Early voting in Indiana starts 29 days before the Nov. 2 general election. In Wisconsin, it's three weeks before Election Day. In Florida, early voting starts 15 days before the election.
Early voting has changed the tempo of campaigns, lessening the value of late TV spots and late campaign developments.
For Democrats, the summer — particularly August and September — has been their best opportunity to change the trajectory of individual races. Few have succeeded in doing so.
Many incumbent Democrats, flush with cash, were able to get on TV with ads intended both to strengthen their own numbers and to drive up the negative ratings of their opponents.
With GOP candidates husbanding their resources for October and "outside" Republican groups focused more on Senate contests, Democratic incumbents have often been able to deliver their messages without comparable Republican messaging.
In Virginia's 5th district, for example, freshman Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello ran broadcast TV ads in the Charlottesville and Roanoke markets from late June (a couple of weeks after the state's primary) to the middle of July and again from mid-August to mid-September.
Republican nominee Robert Hurt answered with a two-week buy in late August and another two-week buy in mid-September, and the NRCC started its medium-size buy in mid-September. But the early advertising advantage was Perriello's, and the Democrat had the early financial edge to expand that early advertising edge had he wanted to.
In Florida's 24th district, incumbent Suzanne Kosmas (D) had a small buy in Orlando in early September, increased it to a substantial buy for a week in mid-September and ran a medium-size buy the following week, for a total of more than 1,400 gross ratings points through Sept. 26.
Kosmas' buy during the time was unchallenged by the Republican nominee, Sandy Adams, or by the NRCC. Only one "outside" group ran a small buy (200 points a week) starting Sept. 9
The Democrat's ads were effective — but only to a point. Recent Democratic polling showed she improved on the ballot by two points in late August to late September, from 43 percent to 45 percent. Adams, in contrast, slipped from 49 percent to 43 percent.
Kosmas certainly improved her position in the race. But she remains in the mid-40s in the ballot test, and Republicans are now ready to begin their attacks on the Congresswoman. Her prospects remain dim, though not as dim as they were a month ago.
In Indiana's 9th district, Rep. Baron Hill started running a modest 400-points-per-week buy in the Louisville media market in mid-August. At the beginning of September, he supplemented it with cable buys in four markets, running almost $350,000 in TV ads through the end of September.
Hill's opponent, Todd Young, started a 500-points-per-week TV buy Sept. 6. A small buy (300 points per week) by the American Future Fund began Sept. 9, and the NRCC's independent expenditure TV buy of almost 1,000 points per week just began recently and is scheduled to continue through Election Day.
Hill had the early advantage, but that advantage has disappeared, and now that the DCCC has cancelled its Oct. 5-18 TV buys for Hill, it looks as if the Congressman won't have a media advantage until possibly mid-October, when the DCCC is scheduled to go up on the air for him in multiple markets.
The problem with late advertising is that while voters are paying attention to the contests — which should make them persuadable by ads — there are reasons why those voters will be more resistant to the messages.
The sheer number of TV spots, direct-mail pieces and automated telephone calls received by voters in the last month before an election can cause voters to "turn off" completely, ignoring political campaign messages as if they were some sort of unwanted media spam that is immediately destined to be deleted.
And in states like Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where statewide contests fight for air time with Congressional races, the political media overload is likely to severely devalue any candidate who isn't running TV spots at Meg Whitman-like levels.
If you are a voter in Hill's district, for example, you may be exposed to ads from both the Indiana and Kentucky Senate races, as well as from candidates running in other Congressional districts. If you are in Kosmas' district, you'll have to contend with ads from the Florida gubernatorial and Senate races, as well as from other House contests.
Moreover, after weeks of advertising, voters already know the fundamental messages of the campaigns. A campaign trailing on Oct. 1 better have some killer new information in its October advertising if it is going to get attention from increasingly cynical voters.
In Texas' 17th district, Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards bought almost 7,000 gross ratings points between Aug. 27 and Sept. 27 on Waco broadcast TV, pummeling his Republican opponent, Bill Flores.
Unfortunately for Edwards, Flores bought about 4,000 points, and the NRCC chipped in about another 1,500 points. American Future Fund checked in with about another 1,000 points during the same period (None of these figures include the cable TV purchased by the candidates or the political committees). Voters, in short, have already heard many attacks.
A few elections will likely turn on late campaign developments, possibly an ad, a weak debate performance or an issue introduced at the last minute. And a big national news story can obviously have a significant effect on November's results.
But for most races, the die will be cast around the beginning of October. Either the early ads changed opinion or they didn't. And that is why the last month of most campaigns is actually less decisive than you may think it is.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.