By mid-December, more than $17.5 million had been spent on TV ads in just four Senate contests: in North Carolina ($8.3 million), Kentucky ($3.5 million), Arkansas ($3.4 million) and Louisiana ($2.3 million), according to a recent piece by Roll Call’s Kyle Trygstad.
The numbers are interesting and newsworthy. But it’s important to understand the dirty little secret of early TV ads: At the end of the day, most of the ads, and most of the money spent on them, won’t make a dime’s worth of difference in the November results.
I know because I’ve seen this movie before — almost 30 years ago.
Early in 1986, I published an article in Public Opinion magazine that focused on the growing use of early TV spots by big-name consultants. (Here's a PDF of that original piece.)
Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins began airing TV spots in September 1985 for her 1986 re-election bid, while North Dakota’s Mark Andrews started even earlier, in June. Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton's ads began airing in October 1985. The three Republican incumbents used the same highly regarded media consultant, Robert Goodman. And they had something else in common: Each of them lost.
Only Hawkins spent heavily in the year before she faced the voters ($1.3 million). Andrews ($13,000) and Denton ($60,000) spent little.
Goodman wasn’t the only consultant to begin early on TV that cycle. Two of Democratic consultant Bob Squier’s clients, Florida’s Bob Graham ($265,000) and Alabama’s Richard Shelby ($185,000), aired their first TV ads in January 1986, well before voters wanted to pay any attention to November’s elections. Both won in what would turn out to be a huge Democratic year in Senate contests.
Other big name consultants — Republicans Mike Murphy, Alex Castellanos and Roger Ailes and Democrat Ray Strother — adopted the same strategy that cycle. So early TV ads aren’t all that new.
Strategists who advocate or justify TV ads 10 or 12 months before Election Day will tell you that it is important to get up on the air to “introduce” an opponent before he or she can introduce himself (Arkansas) or to dissuade a potential opponent from running (Kentucky). And in a few rare cases, that may work. But most of the time it doesn’t, especially if both sides have plenty of money.
It certainly is true that given the suffocating nature of the final weeks of a campaign, when every candidate for every office seems to be buying up whatever air time is still available, many strategists believe that the value of late advertising is dropping. And if late ads are ineffective, the idea of early TV ads sounds more appealing.
“Late ads don’t do much anymore, in part because there are so many ads, so the odds of getting through with a message are better early than late,” one pollster argued.
But while early TV messages may get through, there is no reason to believe that they will have much staying power. Voters’ attention spans are short, so unless those early ads stay on the air continuously through Election Day, or an individual spot is unusually creative and memorable, the messages in those ads are likely to fade quickly.
Over and over, when I speak to consultants now, they identify a cluster of factors that encourage early spending on campaign ads:
- There is so much money available that “outside” political groups, which have exploded in number following changes in the law, don’t know what to do with it. So, they are looking for innovative ways to spend their cash, even if the value is unproven. One consultant put it this way: “Let’s see if we can make something happen by spending early.” Another put it only slightly differently: “With so much money to burn, what the hell?”
- The more “outside” groups and candidates spend early money on TV, the greater the incentive for others to do the same for fear of looking behind the media curve. As one consultant said, “We don’t know if [early TV advertising] works, but we can’t afford not to do it.”
- Spending on campaign TV ads more than a year before an election helps super PACs raise more money. They can point to their ads and show how relevant (and important) they are. The ads generate excitement and interest among potential contributors. So the spending is less about influencing the outcome of an election and more about demonstrating alleged relevance.
- Early TV ads may or may not affect voters, but they can have a short-term effect on poll numbers, impacting the press narrative and influencing how the media covers the race all the way until Election Day. And that narrative can affect candidate viability and campaign fundraising.
And yet, observers also agree that the quality of TV advertising by outside groups is improving — in part, because the same consultants are now doing candidates and outside groups (though not in the same contests, of course) — narrowing the difference between the two types of ads.
But if the blizzard of TV campaign ads — whether early or late — isn’t likely to move voters the way campaigns hope, those ads can have one unintended impact on the electorate. Disgusted by the charges and countercharges that now drag on for many months, and unsure who or what to believe, voters may choose not to believe any of the name-calling and attacks.
If that happens, they will revert to one of two other factors to make their vote decisions. Either voters will fall back on their partisan inclinations, or they will base their final decisions on their general feelings about the direction of the country and the president. And that’s exactly what happened in the past two midterm elections, when mood trumped most TV ads.