If you’re running for Congress in Florida, time is short.
A late primary on Aug. 14, an onslaught of media from Senate and presidential campaigns, and absentee and early voting that could see almost half of the ballots in some races cast before Election Day leaves Congressional campaigns in Florida with a compressed calendar to get their message to voters.
Strategists of both parties said that means campaigns not only have to reserve TV time early but plot creative media plans to connect through the clutter.
“Strategically and tactically, people are thinking: Do we go up earlier?” Democratic pollster John Anzalone explained. “Web advertising, direct mail, radio — everything is being discussed in an effort to try to break through.”
Anzalone also noted that August, usually a prime month for voter communication, was made a bit more difficult this year because of the Olympics, which made many ad slots prohibitively expensive, and the GOP convention in Tampa, which isn’t necessarily the best time to advertise.
“You have to start looking at how you communicate in other venues: online and social media and phone and other contact methodologies. But TV is still the 10,000-pound giant,” Florida GOP consultant Rick Wilson said. “There is still no substitute for a thousand points of TV.”
And while candidates will get the best rates for TV ads, it doesn’t mean they’ll get the best placement.
“Being on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ or being on the 11:30 [p.m.] Letterman,” said one influential Republican consultant in the state, “there’s a big difference in certain neighborhoods, whether anybody is watching.”
In some Florida media markets, such as West Palm Beach, the clutter in the weeks leading up to Nov. 6 could be immense. Operatives expect heavy ad rotations from not only President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but also Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and his presumptive opponent, Rep. Connie Mack IV (R); Rep. Allen West (R) and his presumptive opponent, Patrick Murphy (D); Republican Adam Hasner and his presumptive opponent, Lois Frankel (D); and all manner of heavy-hitting third-party groups.
Consultants also expect the Orlando media market to be swamped with ads from Senate and presidential races, as well as Congressional spots from former Rep. Alan Grayson (D) and his GOP opponent, along with Rep. Daniel Webster (R) and his presumptive challenger, Val Demings (D).
Crowded airwaves are a swing-state affliction in this competitive presidential year, but Florida’s compressed schedule and must-win electoral position for Romney makes it a particularly potent issue for Sunshine State candidates.
“We’re going to have 100 percent saturation by the time Election Day rolls around,” said one plugged-in GOP strategist in Florida. “If you’re a Congressional candidate, you can do a cookie-cutter attack or contrast ad, but ... you have something in there that is quirky, lighthearted, impactful and different in some way.”
“You don’t want to be Fred Davis ‘I’m not a witch’ different — but different,” the strategist added, referring to the GOP admaker’s now-infamous ad for failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell.
Operatives also noted that swing voters’ mailboxes would likely be overflowing with direct-mail pieces from candidates and third-party groups during the next few months. To hold a voter’s eye for even an extra second calls for particularly creative pieces, they said. But making sure not to go over the line and turn voters off is a careful art.
With the top-of-the-ticket races and the huge GOP convention being held in Tampa next month, there’s also a limited amount of journalistic coverage that Members and Congressional challengers are fighting for.
Congressional campaigns “have to take advantage of every earned media opportunity they get or are able to create,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. “You have to be more aggressive in getting your message out there.”
Part of the compressed cycle is a result of Florida’s absentee ballot and early voting program, which many Floridians take advantage of. Indeed, some races may have half the ballots cast before Nov. 6.
“There’s not Election Day in Florida, there’s election month” said Eric Johnson, a consultant for Murphy.
“Absentee voting has probably become the biggest misnomer in the process,” Florida GOP strategist Brian Hughes said. “It’s really become vote-by-mail.”
Voters can send in absentee ballots as soon as Oct. 3, 35 days before Election Day. Early voting — where voters can go to a physical location to vote — begins on Oct. 27, 10 days before the elections.
All that calls for thoughtful planning of how and when to target swing voters so that they’ll pay attention to a downballot race.
But even with lots of planning, figuring out how to break through won’t be easy.
“Hey, it’s uncharted territory,” said the influential Republican consultant in the state. “We’ve never seen this much independent money come in. It’s brand new for everybody. We’re all going to be feeling our way through, sort of in the dark, looking for the light switch.”