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Will 2016 Democratic Campaigns Continue to Flush Their $$$ Down the Broadcast TV Toilet Bowl?


Back in November 2014, I used that year’s VA-10 Congressional race as a case study in looking at whether broadcast TV political ads are a huge waste of money. The short answer: yes, it was basically like flushing down the toilet the money that the candidate (in that case John Foust) had raised over months of (painful, hated) dialing for dollars from big donors. Among other problems:

  • In the end, perhaps 1/7th (14%) or so of market reached by a broadcast TV ad in the DC Metro market reaches the 10th CD. That means 86% of a DC Metro market broadcast TV ad buy is essentially “bleed” — not reaching the targeted audience at all, ergo wasted.
  • Within the 10th CD, it’s important to point out that most people reached by a broadcast TV ad in a mid-term election like this will not be likely voters, let alone what you really want: likely AND persuadable voters in the district. The number of those people reached by your (super-expensive) ad? Miniscule. Bang for the buck? Less than miniscule

So…huge waste of money, possibly even NEGATIVE “bang for the buck” (e.g., the more the Foust campaign spent on broadcast TV that year, the worse it did vs. Barbara Comstock). Crazy, eh? But what’s the alternative? As I wrote at the time: theoretically, campaigns COULD shift their resources to field and social/digital media, targeted radio and in-district cable TV, niche publications (e.g., Korean/Spanish/etc. language newspapers and radio stations), print advertising in local papers, stuff like that. That would be much less expensive, but would also be a gazillion times more focused locally, within the district, reducing the absurd “bleed” that’s inherent to broadcast TV advertising.

Anyway, the point of this post isn’t to repeat what I wrote back in November 2014, although clearly I’ve just done a bit of that as an intro. Instead, my point today was simply to point everyone to this article at Harpers by Andrew Cockburn entitled, “Down the Tube: Television, turnout, and the election-industrial complex.” In sum, this article confirms everything I wrote in November 2014. key points:

  • Candidates hate raising money, yet: “Ironically, he explained over a beer on K Street, most of the money they raise is wasted, especially on expensive TV campaigns that do nothing to move voters. The principal effect of these labors, he insisted, is to “feed the consultant class.””
  • Why? “Such manic spending is driven by a core belief of modern American politics: the votes can be bought if the check is big enough.”
  • Also, the “election-industrial” complex of consultants has “desperate candidates” and campaigns convinced this “ineffective” stuff works, even though there’s almost no evidence that it does (Key quote: research finds that “TV, partisan mail, and robocalls had no effect at all.”).

So what to do instead of flushing money down the toilet bowl of broadcast TV advertising? Just as I said in November 2014:

Of all the ways to get people to come out and vote tested by the academics, one emerged as the absolute gold standard. Talking to them face-to-face, the longer the better, turned out to have a dramatic effect. This is known in the trade as the “ground campaign” or “field operation,” conducted by volunteers or paid staff, preferably from the neighborhood they are canvassing. It doesn’t come free: the canvassers, even if they are volunteers, have to be housed, fed, trained, and transported. Yet the effect is infinitely more cost-effective than any traditional media-heavy approach.

Seems like a no brainer, right? So is anyone doing this? Well, yes: “Of the 2016 candidates, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have most successfully embraced the ground-game approach, incorporating sophisticated digital technology to identify likely supporters for canvassing by ground teams.”

But mostly, “traditional campaigns have shown far less interest in engaging directly with voters.” Why not? Now this should piss you off: “Not only does it offer little promise of revenue, it necessarily relies on people more committed and militant than those at the center may deem acceptable.”

Uhhh…alrighty then. So much for Jim Webb’s 2006 “ragtag army” of 12,000+ volunteers, in other words. Not to mention the “draft James Webb” movement and all that. Meh!

By the way, one of the examples cited of a successful “insurgency” campaign that didn’t have the money for broadcast TV is right here in Virginia — the victorious Dave Brat effort against Eric Cantor in 2014. Cantor lost in spite of having “outspent his upstart opponent by a ratio of 41 to 1,” including “$168,000 for steak-house tabs” alone — an amount “almost as much as Brat’s entire campaign.”

Anyway, the bottom line is that Democrats need to change course ASAP, move away from flushing their money down the broadcast TV toilet bowl, investing it instead in field, grassroots and netroots organizing, digital advertising, etc. Or, of course, they can do that classic definition of insanity — repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results. LOL

  • Letters from a VA Democrat

    Field is very important, and i think Democrats are beginning to realize that, in some ways. Both Clinton and Sanders have spent large bucks on their field campaigns and Clintons CM (mook) comes with a field background. But still you need to get the message out somehow. The real truth is all the new digital ads coming online are great. Those are far cheaper than TV, allow far more narrow and precise targeting and actually allow Democrats to make specific pitches to specific groups than the traditional Dem=Good, Gop=Crazy routine we have been using in the past.

    • Broadcast TV is the dumbest of dumb advertising. In today’s day and age, you can target specific demographics (e.g., 25-30-year-old women living along the Metro corridor in Arlington; 50-year-old African American men living in Richmond, whatever) using pre-roll video, targeted digital advertising, etc. Given that capability, why would anyone do the dumb, analog, pre-internet, pre-mobile-devices, antiquated 20th-century approach anymore, especially when it clearly doesn’t work anymore? It’s nuts.

  • True Blue

    Comstock’s scratchy voice played ad nauseum on radio ads in 2014! Since many spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in traffic while driving to work in NoVA, radio is probably a better choice than tv ads. I hope VA Dems read your column. . .

    • Radio’s not super-targeted either, but better than broadcast TV and not as expensive at least. Plus, sure, if you get people sitting in their cars, you can talk to them about traffic, transportation, etc. — at least that’s relevant to their lives at that point.

  • Brendan

    The biggest problem is finding a good team for field and digital. Both are incredibly powerful, but it’s pretty easy to turn them into wasted efforts. I believe in field completely, it’s where I and many others started off in politics, but locally there have been very few campaigns with impressive field (or digital) programs. Way too much emphasis shifted towards data and reaching targets, but in practice that ends up being a kinda crappy performance metric. So many campaigns i’ve seen around here hire anyone who applies for field organizer positions and end up with totally bullshit numbers and worthless GOTV universes. Campaigns need to spend more time vetting & training organizers as well as their election models and target universes.

    On the digital side, the incredible data tools are only being half-used. i see a lot of campaigns deciding to target certain groups without tailoring their message. From cookies, voter file matching, remarketing, and social data….there’s an incredible opportunity to only find and target, but to speak to people about the issues important to them rather than simply a reminder to vote next month or a picture of the candidate in a suit. Additionally, a majority of campaigns still employ a DCCC style of list management that involves constant begging and blasting out irrelevant news, cutting off the line to some of their most interested supporters.

    As far as TV, it’s fine if you have an ad that can generate something like ten times as many earned/social shares as it does GRP’s. A couple Obama ads accomplished that. Most recently Bernie’s ‘America’ ad did that. TV also makes sense for going negative, or responding to negatives, but overall, especially in an expensive, multi-jurisdiction market like DC, it simply doesn’t make sense. Most expensive and down there w/ law signs in terms of effectiveness.

  • Quizzical

    There must be more to the story. I mean, smart people like the ones running political campaigns do things for a reason. It may be that TV ads are often very effective in swaying certain groups, eg retirees who watch a lot of TV. Possibly, really large donors expect and demand to see large TV ad campaigns, as proof that their money has been put to good use. Another possibility is that being a source of major ad revenue gets the campaign better access to the major media, and thus more free media exposure. Another possibility is that there are financial conflicts of interest at play. Who benefits when millions in ad revenues go to the local TV stations in a state? Perhaps some of the largest donors also have ownership interest in the TV stations.

    • Yes, as I’ve discussed many times, there IS more to the story: $$$$$$ and lots of it to the TV ad makers, buyers, consultants, etc. It’s a powerful, lucrative, vested industry, and it’s not giving up its place at the trough anytime soon if at all possible.

  • Point to remember: Brat benefited by Cantor’s ads because they were ridiculously stupid. Remember “Dave Brat is a liberal college professor”?

    It’s local election season here, and I’m having problems with candidates not even willing (nor able) to spend $200. Ugh.