Elections should be about ideas, but they’re mostly about ads

There shouldn’t be a debate about political debates. Debates between candidates are the time-honored way for citizens to compare and contrast those who would lead us. Candidates who duck debates are contemptuous of our civic traditions and the electorate.

When there are no debates – or when we must make a single "town hall" suffice – most of us are left with political advertisements, the inherently biased selling of the candidates. What are you to believe: The gauzy hagiography that you see the most times? The cutting attack funded by anonymous donors who don’t have the courage to identify themselves and, by extension, their interests? There is good reason people have low regard for political ads.

Local and national news on the networks’ broadcast affiliates are a favored placement for political ads. The theory is that those who watch the news are civically engaged enough to care about voting.

A revealing piece in Roll Call last week identified several other categories of programming that are priorities for political advertisers who want to persuade different demographic groups:

Seniors are the most reliable age cohort for voting. Not only are they the most loyal viewers of local and national news, they’re also the most loyal watchers of “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” – staples for political ad buyers.

Female voters are coveted by both parties. Network talent contests and daytime talk shows are priorities for reaching prospective women voters.

Live events, particularly college and professional football, are what Roll Call termed “ratings gold.” And since most viewers watch athletic contests and award shows live, advertisers don’t have to worry about the audience fast-forwarding through their messages.

Political ads capture the biggest share of campaign budgets. Committees spent $29 million to tell us their views about Michigan’s candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate by Labor Day, and advertising contracts are booked by the candidates and interest groups until Election Day.

Things are getting more complicated for political advertisers. Viewing habits are changing rapidly in the current media and entertainment revolution. There is time-shifting through digital video recording that allows viewers to skip ads. Television’s status as the top-ranked news medium is slipping relative to online sources. Millennials are inclined to stream video content without advertisements, and other age cohorts are following that trend.

Largely due to the Citizens United effect, spending for TV political ads is still growing even as television’s dominance in entertainment viewing is slipping relative to other platforms. There are times that it is obvious that some in the process have more dollars than sense. One such instance came in the last week of Michigan’s 2012 U.S. Senate campaign. A super PAC called Hardworking Americans, funded mostly by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, paid for a million-dollar attack campaign against Debbie Stabenow even though she had a 20-point lead in the polls against Pete Hoekstra. Stabenow won the election by 20 points and the political consultant and ad agency that placed Hardworking Americans’ ads won, too. The standard ad agency commission is 15 percent of the gross sale, even if you don’t persuade anyone of anything.

Political advertising can be an indicator in the great poker game of national campaigning. In 2004, supporters of George W. Bush’s lagging Michigan campaign subtly ratcheted back their TV schedule in October. That subtlety kept state Republicans’ hopes buoyant and kept John Kerry’s campaign engaged here instead of shifting more resources to Ohio. John McCain’s ostentatious fold in 2008 demoralized Republicans, probably hurt down-ballot candidates and allowed Barack Obama’s TV campaign to leave the state along with McCain’s. Observers are watching closely to see which independent spenders are in, and which are out, of Michigan’s 2014 senate campaign.

Finally, there is a political advertising development to watch after Election Day. If the legislature proceeds with a plan to reallocate Michigan’s Electoral College votes, either proportionally or by congressional district, it will have a significant effect on future presidential television advertising In Michigan. Michigan has been hotly contested in past campaigns because it has been viewed as a competitive state with 16 electoral votes at stake. With a revised allocation scheme, it’s unlikely that more than one electoral vote on the margin truly would be at stake. With less at stake, less will be spent in the contest. That could cost state broadcasters and cable systems as much as $50 million in presidential campaign advertising revenue in an election cycle. It will be interesting to see how broadcasters react to legislative Republicans’ ‘half-loaf’ strategy for electoral votes.

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Fri, 09/26/2014 - 4:04pm
During the course of campaigns, candidates are educated and campaign about the local, regional, and state issues most important to the handful of battleground states they need to win. They take this knowledge and prioritization with them once they are elected. Candidates need to be educated and care about all of our states. The number and population of battleground states is shrinking. Michigan was not a battleground state in 2012. Policies important to the citizens of non-battleground states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to the handful of ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing. Charlie Cook reported in 2004: “Senior Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out yesterday that the Bush campaign hadn’t taken a national poll in almost two years; instead, it has been polling [in the then] 18 battleground states.” [only 10 in 2012] Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledging the reality that [then] more than 2/3rds of Americans were ignored in the 2008 presidential campaign, said in the Washington Post on June 21, 2009: “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state.” State-by-state winner-take-all laws adversely affects governance. Sitting Presidents (whether contemplating their own re-election or the election of their preferred successor) pay inordinate attention to the interests of “battleground” states. ** “Battleground” states receive over 7% more grants than other states. ** “Battleground” states receive 5% more grant dollars. ** A “battleground” state can expect to receive twice as many presidential disaster declarations as an uncompetitive state. ** The locations of Superfund enforcement actions also reflect a state’s battleground status. ** Federal exemptions from the No Child Left Behind law have been characterized as “‘no swing state left behind.” The effect of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system on governance is discussed at length in Presidential Pork by Dr. John Hudak of the Brookings Institution. Compare the response to hurricane Katrina (in Louisiana, a "safe" state) to the federal response to hurricanes in Florida (a "swing" state) under Presidents of both parties. President Obama took more interest in the BP oil spill, once it reached Florida's shores, after it had first reached Louisiana. Some pandering policy examples include ethanol subsidies, Steel Tariffs, and Medicare Part D. Policies not given priority, include those most important to non-battleground states - like water issues in the west.
Fri, 09/26/2014 - 4:25pm
A survey of Michigan voters showed 73% overall support for a national popular vote for President. Support was 73% among independents, 78% among Democrats, and 68% among Republicans. By age, support was 77% among 18-29 year olds, 67% among 30-45 year olds, 74% among 46-65 year olds, and 75% for those older than 65. By gender, support was 86% among women and 59% among men. On December 11, 2008, The Michigan House of Representatives passed the National Popular Vote bill by a 65-36 margin The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes, and thus the presidency, to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by replacing state winner-take-all laws for awarding electoral votes. Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions. The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of Electoral College votes—that is, enough to elect a President (270 of 538). The candidate receiving the most popular votes from all 50 states (and DC) would get all the 270+ electoral votes of the enacting states. The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founders. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founders in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. States can, and have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Historically, major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action. In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls, almost always in the 70-80% range or higher. in recent or past closely divided battleground states like CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA --75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE -74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win. The bill has passed 33 state legislative chambers in 22 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 250 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect. NationalPopularVote Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc
Charles Richards
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 2:47pm
I disagree with Toto when he says, "Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections." It would be much more cost effective to campaign in densely populated areas than in thinly populated regions. It would be much better if each state awarded its electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote. That would ensure that the winner of the popular vote would win the electoral college vote, and ensure that sparsely populated states would have their values and issues given consideration.
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 8:36am
I have an idea for Michigan's economy: Lets re-legalize hemp! The hemp industry can produce food, clothing, shelter and fuel. Hemp, unlike its cousin marijuana is virtually THC free. Yet, the hemp seed is one of the most nutritious sources of food on the planet. We could also send Hemp Farm kits to the hungry folks in Central America to help stabilize the region. Does anyone know why hemp is illegal?
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 9:49am
What is Mr. Robinson's point, what should happen? Is he concerned for those spending all that money on ads getting fair value, what issues does he want ads on? Does he feel we (the voters) will be better informed with the staged 'debates' and 'town hall' meetings? Does he really believe the 'time honored' debates are the same as they were or could they have become a way for candidates to be caught in a 'gaff' that can then be exploited by more ads or the media? When it comes to political campaigning it seems Mr. Robinson is just another one who wants to play the whining game and make no effort to help voters be better informed. I see nothing new in his article; no new information, no a new perspective, no new questions for voters to consider. He seems to just be complaining how bad our political process and campaigning is. As best I can tell we have had incompetent, ineffective, inconsiderate, even corrupt officials throughout our history, long before the spending spree we are now seeing. This type of political incompetency seems to be true in other political systems, and some have even had a few brutal officials. I would encourage those who play the campaign whining game, to put as much effort into developing ways to help voters to become better informed. If they would help develop a list of things they consider when deciding how they will vote we all may become better informed voters. I would like to see them help by starting with a description of the roles and responsibilities for each office that is on the ballot, this could provide voters with information to help them in assessing candidates. By the way Mr. Robinson it is the election of candidates; it isn’t about issues, it is about performance, are we getting good value for our tax dollars, are the candidates willing and able to fulfill the roles and responsibilities, are we as voters receiving the information we need to be informed when we vote. The reality you seem not to have learned when it comes to advertising, people hear what they are listening for. Why don't you help people better understand what they could be listening for?
Charles Richards
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 3:19pm
Mr. Robinson says, ". Michigan has been hotly contested in past campaigns because it has been viewed as a competitive state with 16 electoral votes at stake. With a revised allocation scheme, it’s unlikely that more than one electoral vote on the margin truly would be at stake." The Democrats have won the last six presidential campaigns in Michigan. I don't view Michigan as a particularly competitive state. And if every state awarded its electoral votes in proportion to its popular vote and it was a close vote, the winner would receive nine votes to the loser's seven; a difference of two. And each of those electoral votes would be as valuable as any other state's. I'm not all sure of what this article's point was. Doubtless, it gave Mr. Robinson an opportunity to display his stock of political trivia, but it didn't contribute much enlightenment. He laments the quality of political advertising, but offers no insight as to why it is so appalling. Yes, the ads are about marketing rather than ideas, but why? Could it be that there is little or no demand for ideas? Political consultants do considerable market research and design their campaigns to sway voters. Apparently, ideas are not important to the marginal, swing voter. And his much touted debates are not of much value either. Candidates pretty much ignore the questions asked and just repeat their slogans and mantras. In any case, candidates are seldom asked significant questions that require them to say what eventualities would prove their proposed policies successes or failures.
John Q. Public
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 9:52pm
If we're really so concerned with everybody's vote being duly apportioned, I propose we not limit the awards to whole votes. Allow fractional electoral votes--say, even, as small as 1/100th of an electoral vote--to be awarded so the voices of the Greens, the Libertarians, and whatever other minor parties capture more than 1/10th of 1% of the popular vote don't go unrepresented when the Electoral College meets. If that were to be the case, I suspect the whole proposal would best be explained by Roseanne Roseannadanna: "Oh. Never mind."