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Big Spenders Blow Big Money On Political Ads

Bloomberg View Memo Pad Politics

Big Spenders Blow Big Money On Political Ads


Oct. 24 (Bloomberg View) — In department-store owner John Wanamaker’s famous estimation, half of all the money he spent on advertising was wasted; he just couldn’t tell which half. Watching the gobs of money thrown into television’s maw in the costliest midterm election in history, some political pros are beginning to wonder if the correct answer isn’t “both.”

“We may find out,” said Republican consultant Mike Murphy. “In the cheaper states we have hit crazy overkill.”

The expensive states are getting pretty goofy, too. Last week, with ample time for more spending before Election Day, the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina eclipsed the 2012 Senate race in Virginia to become the most expensive in history. In other battlegrounds, local television news programs, the traditional favorite of political advertisers, have been cutting back on news to make more room for more political ads. Time magazine reported yesterday that in Des Moines, Iowa, the NBC affiliate extended its nightly newscast by an hour to profit from the deluge, “but demand was still too great.”

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, projects that the 2014 midterm elections will cost almost $4 billion. Even freedom-loving Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota thinks that might be a tad over the top.

Fortunately, all this advertising has produced a highly knowledgeable electorate, deeply versed in complex issues and prepared to make discerning judgments at the ballot box. With some exceptions. According to an October Pew Research Center poll, fewer than half of registered voters can identify which party controls each house of Congress. (It’s possible, however, that they know more about Ebola-laden terrorists at the border.)

I asked some political pros if they think that battleground states — especially those with highly competitive Senate races, such as Louisiana, New Hampshire and Georgia — are now saturated with political advertising, leaving voters incapable of absorbing any more (mostly negative) information.

Here are some responses, rendered via email except where noted.

“It depends,” said Republican strategist David Winston. “If it is a new topic or idea, people will listen. If it’s just a variation on a familiar theme, then less so as they have already heard it. Hearing a point the 96th time is not likely to generate a different reaction from when it was heard the 73rd time.”

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg basically agrees that the persuasion phase of the campaign is exhausted. “Unless there is some new revelation about a candidate, I think there are diminishing returns to these ads,” she said. “I think the Get Out The Vote field effort is as important, if not more important, now.”

Republican consultant Ed Rollins sees a battered electorate that can’t take another 30-second detonation. “We are at a full saturation point and voters are tuning out the message,” he said. “The more money spent, the fewer voters are paying attention.” Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg concurs. Saturation? “Already reached it,” he said.

Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin says it ain’t over ’til it’s over. “The challenge is that very narrow slice of swing voters who don’t pay that much attention and don’t absorb a lot of what’s been going on,” Tulchin said. “So you can never do too much to win over that last wayward swing voter who doesn’t follow politics like us professionals. It takes A LOT to get through to them, and lots of media to do it.”

Democratic pollster Paul Maslin reckons that campaigns will surely have reached “sheer overkill at some point.”

But when?

The answer, of course, is elusive. And that, said former Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, is why the ads will never stop. “Everybody’s going to keep broadcasting because nobody can tell when that point is,” Shrum said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t matter if there is a saturation point, because campaigns can’t know where it is.”

So maybe half the money candidates and political committees spend on television is wasted. Maybe far more at this hour. But with so many rich people writing checks, nobody cares.

Photo: smokeghost via Flickr

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  1. charleo1 October 25, 2014

    Possibly the worst thing to come out of the Citizens United Supreme Court
    decision, and the avalanche of money it imposed on our electoral system. Is
    the deteriorating center. Since those few individuals who contribute the lion’s
    share of the money, and wind up with the greatest influence on the winners.
    Tend to be positioned at the extremes of either end of the Left, or the Right.
    If polls have revealed anything about the hopes, and desires of the majority of Americans. It’s that both spheres, Left, and Right, want the winners of this
    election, to go Washington, or their respective State Assemblies, and work together to address, and solve, or at least work on addressing, and solving
    the important issues, and challenges that confront the Country. And in that,
    they will be deeply disappointed. Because in politics, you dance with the one
    that brought you. And because winning at politics, even local politics, has become such an expensive affair. That their Chaperones, many who have spent upwards of 30 million dollars of their own scratch bringing their guy, or
    their gal to the dance. Aren’t about to allow their date a waltz across the isle
    with the opposition. Some Party! Some fix we’re in.

  2. Whatmeworry October 25, 2014

    No question the $$$ being spent in Ky by Dem’s could be better spent stuffing ballot boxes in CO and GA

  3. Dominick Vila October 26, 2014

    In my opinion, the best that can be said about all the political advertisement, by both parties, is that it may motivate some people to vote.
    I live in Florida where Gov. Rick Scott, the former CEO of Columbia HCA, the company found guilty of the largest case of MEDICARE fraud and given the largest fine in history, is running for re-election. His “Democratic” opponent is Charlie Crist, a former Republican Governor who was on Sen. McCain’s short list of potential running mates. I live in a heavily Republican district and, not surprisingly, most of my neighbors are voting for Rick Scott. The fact that he should be serving time in jail means absolutely nothing to them. He is a Republican, and they are determined to keep the RINO and turncoat that is running against Ricky out of office. After all, a record number were lost when Crist was in office as a result of the Great Recession, and 600,000 jobs have been created as a result of Gov. Scott’s policies during the last few jobs. In Scott’s case, his job creation record is real, as opposed to President Obama’s who has only created part time and temporary low paying jobs! I suspect the mindset and partisanship I cited is not limited to Florida. After years of deriding President Obama’s stimulus package and the domestic policies that contributed to the economic recovery and job creation that ought to be evident to everyone, Republican incumbents do not hesitate to, shamelessly, use the results of the policies they demonized to score political points.
    Yes, a lot of money has been – and continues to be spent – but there is little evidence that the political advertisements paid for by both parties have persuaded voters to vote for what is best for them and for the country. Republicans are voting RED in unprecedented numbers, and Democrats will vote BLUE as most of them have in the past. As it happens so often, the outcome of this midterm election may depend more on the Independents than the partisans on both sides of our ideological divide.

  4. FireBaron October 26, 2014

    Every dollar Shel Adelson and the Koch Brothers spend this year is one less they can spend in two years.


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