Political strategists are realizing what's long been obvious to any swing-state voter with a television set: Presidential advertising could soon reach a saturation level that makes it impossible for any political message to stand out.
That's especially problematic for House and Senate candidates in battleground states. In these eight to 12 states, the double punch of the well-funded presidential campaigns and wealthy super PACs could overwhelm the resources of Congressional candidates and the national party committees that support them, and swamp their ability to push their messages on TV. Elizabeth Wilner of the Campaign Media Analysis Group projects that nationwide, about 43,000 political spots will air every day through Nov. 6.
"I don't think I can ever remember this amount of activity in September, particularly when it's not being fueled by a primary," said Andy Hoffman, who's been the general sales manager for Boston's ABC affiliate, WCVB, for 26 years. WCVB also broadcasts in New Hampshire, so Hoffman has been booking ads from the presidential campaigns as well as the Massachusetts Senate race and the competitive battle for the Bay State's 6th district.
Trend lines show the flow of ads in August and September in some media markets on par with the October levels of previous election cycles, with ad rates already skyrocketing in Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
Political strategists who track media buying and sources who work for network affiliates in competitive electoral battlegrounds predict it will be hard to see anything but political ads on TV in the media markets of these and other states by October. In fact, there is speculation that ad space will virtually disappear as Election Day nears, making the effectiveness of such advertising questionable.
"I think even in 2010 we got to a point where it was just digital wallpaper," one GOP strategist said. "Voters were just tuned out late. I think the utility of television certainly decreases as you get closer to the election."
This cycle, Congressional campaigns and party committees have tried to work around this dynamic by going on the air earlier than ever before.
But there is a point when television ads lose influence and polling numbers freeze - when no more advertising can move a race. It has been compared to a nuclear arms race and "mutually assured destruction." But despite the inability of Congressional ads to break through in this advertising environment, campaigns cannot afford to pull their ads, no matter how numb viewers become.
"If you go off the air and you leave it just to the opponent, there's a pretty high chance it'll still move numbers [in a negative way]," said the GOP strategist.
To stand out on television in a season flooded with presidential and super PAC ads, media strategists say the answer is to get creative, not more negative. The Republican strategist said this tactic has become more apparent over the past six years, and stands in stark contrast to the old way of trying to get attention in a crowded ad environment that involved producing spots that were "darker, scarier ... and more fierce."
One of the ads that has stood out in that vein this cycle is from attorney Shelley Adler (D), who is challenging Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) In an spot that went up last week, a doppelganger of Runyan in a suit and football helmet tackles elderly people, poking fun at his past as an NFL player while also getting across the Democrats' message that Republicans will not protect Medicare.
"I actually think there is a rising feeling in the media consulting world is what you need in October is an ad that's creative," the strategist added.
But not everyone believes voter tuneout is inevitable. Nick Everhart is one of the top ad-makers for GOP candidates in the country.
He compared the phenomenon to when car dealers need to unload vehicles or when holiday advertisements flood TV channels.
He stressed that the content of the ad - not the amount of money or points behind it - is what matters.
But if the ads do not break through, the emphasis will expand to direct mail, voter outreach and early groundwork laid in candidate recruitment. But just like the television advertising, campaigns worry about contacting voters to the point of harassment. The consensus among most strategists is that while ads may lose their cost-benefit effect, they remain the best way to reach voters.
"I don't subscribe to the premise of clutter. I kind of disdain and hate the word," Everhart said. "There's always advertising on television. There's always advertising in people's faces."
Federal law dictates that candidates must have access to lower ad rates while super PACs and committees must pay a premium.
Lower rates or not, the economic effect of political advertising has changed the affiliate business model to the point that Wall Street now measures affiliate television outlooks around the two-year campaign cycles. And there is another curve ball that could hit those spending on ads: the World Series. In 2010, operatives saw rates jump in the Philadelphia market when the Phillies went to the World Series.
A glance at teams leading their divisions shows the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Nationals are in positions to move rates as the playoff season unfolds. An Ohio source familiar with ad sales emphasized that sports are a hot commodity for political buyers. Rates could jump depending on how well colleges such as Ohio State University and professional football teams perform over the course of the fall.