TV still the favored medium for political ad spending

The Internet revolutionized political fundraising, but when it comes to spending those dollars, media strategists are voting old school.

Candidates and supporters are caught up in a frenetic advertising blitz, on pace to drop a record $3 billion, according to analysts who monitor spending. Most of the money is going to an old-media workhorse: local TV stations.

Two years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama successfully tapped the Internet to raise money and mobilize millions of voters. Politicians around the country, including California gubernatorial hopefuls Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, have jumped on the social media bandwagon, including Facebook and Twitter. But as the campaign season heated up, analysts said, candidates scaled back on Internet ad buys in favor of the tried and true.

How tried and true? Even the 235-year-old U.S. Postal Service is a conduit for more paid advertising — by 13 to 1 — than its digital descendant.

For California TV stations, particularly those in Los Angeles, the midterm election has led to a gold-rush mentality. One campaign organizer said the cost of a 30-second TV spot has been soaring in the final days before Tuesday’s election. A spot that went for $2,000 two years ago is going for $5,000 today.


Analysts who track political spending predict that TV stations nationwide will rake in two-thirds of the campaign dollars this year — about $2 billion. Commercial radio, another old-media staple, is expected to collect $250 million. At least $650 million will be spent on direct mail campaigns, those glossy fliers now filling mailboxes.

Internet sites should fetch about $50 million, less than 2% of the total.

Advertising veterans say the stakes are too high to experiment with a medium that, despite its ability to monitor the browsing habits of consumers, might not be effective.

“Television delivers a mass audience in a short amount of time and you don’t have that same assurance with the Internet,” said Wayne Johnson, president of Wayne Johnson Agency in Sacramento, which advises Republican candidates. “We have been waiting for that to change, but there are legitimate reasons why people are sticking with TV ads.”

For one thing, Johnson and other marketers said, TV commercials sway voters. Politicians are able to blanket their message across a broad geographic region. Internet sites draw niche audiences from all over the planet, not a particular congressional district. And these days it is impossible to escape the barrage of ads on television.

Internet ads, Johnson said, are easy to ignore: “All you have to do is click.”

Several factors have contributed to this year’s gusher, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that now allows unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions. In August, a low-profile Federal Election Commission decision opened the door for donors to pool their money and give anonymously, which produced a bumper crop of ads from nonprofit political groups and committees trying to influence voters.

Well Fargo Securities estimates that political spending this year will increase 11% over 2008, in large part because of the anti-incumbency fervor roiling races.

“The biggest factor driving the spending is the competitive landscape,” said Evan Tracey, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. “Incumbents across the country are worried about losing, and they are not holding on to their money. And many of these statewide races are in states with expensive media markets like New York, Texas and California.”

Whitman, a Republican, has poured more than $140million of her own money into her campaign for California governor. The floodgates opened after Labor Day when Democrat Brown and his backers began promoting his gubernatorial bid with a torrent of ads. That’s also when the race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican Carly Fiorina intensified.

“We could reach record spending levels here in Southern California,” said Sue Johenning, who is in charge of local advertising for the ad-buying firm Initiative. “It’s clearly the two big statewide races and all of these various committees. That’s making a difference.”

Los Angeles TV stations are awash in cash. According to Wells Fargo Securities, L.A. stations had collected more political ad money this year than those in any other market — more than $105million — by the third week of September and could take in as much as $150million by the time the votes are counted.

Station executives said political spending levels in L.A. were as much as 50% higher than two years ago. That’s a boon for stations recovering from the recession-induced pullback in advertising by car companies and dealerships. Stations in California also didn’t get much presidential campaign money two years ago because California was firmly in the Obama column.

This year, stations in California, New York, Florida and Colorado — all of which are hosting bitter Senate or gubernatorial races — have been magnets for money. Companies such as CBS Corp., News Corp., Walt Disney Co., NBC Universal and Tribune Co. (which owns KTLA-TV Channel 5 as well as the Los Angeles Times) have benefited mightily.

Campaign organizers noticed something else.

“The cost of the media is significantly higher than it was two years ago,” said Johnson, who is working on several ballot initiatives. “Someone who would have spent $2.5 million for a statewide campaign back then would now have to spend $4million. Now, instead of buying a $2,000 spot, the price is $5,000 and three weeks ago it would have cost $3,000.”

Spanish-language stations haven’t been left out of politicians’ largess either. Whitman began buying ads on Spanish-language outlets, including Univision Communications stations, in June. She accelerated her spending after the September furor over her employment of a housekeeper who was an illegal immigrant. In recent weeks, Democratic campaign committees have funneled more dollars to Spanish-language outlets to appeal to Latino voters.

Advertising analysts had predicted it would be a banner year because of the Supreme Court ruling. But Kantar Media’s Tracey said it was difficult to determine just how much money was unleashed by the decision. “Probably about $200 million more was spent than would have been without the ruling,” he said.

In the final days, observers said, spending by partisan activists has accelerated as the two sides jockey for undecided voters.

“This is about advocating for a change in the direction of the country,” Johnson said. “If there wasn’t the possibility of a change in the makeup of Congress, all of that money would go away.”