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.