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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."