Normally 2003 wouldn't be considered such a strong year for campaign spending. There's no presidential election, which boosts spending nationwide. It's also an off-year for Congressional elections. But 2003 has open-for-the-taking races in three southern states and 40 mayoral races in major markets like Philadelphia and San Francisco. Throw in important primary and caucus elections in February 2004, and a lot of Democratic presidential candidates will be advertising heavily in the key states this fall and winter.
That doesn't take into account the possibility of a recall election against California Gov. Gray Davis, which will depend on whether Davis' opponents gather enough signatures to put the recall measure on the ballot in November.
"The wildcard in a lot of this is the potential for the California recall. That's moving along at a pretty fair clip," said Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. He said that if the effort to force the referendum is successful, there will be a lot of ads bought in one of the nation's most media-intensive states.
CMR said last year's campaign-ad spending totaled $840 million, up 34% 2000's previous record of $625 million. That's surprising, considering 2000 featured a presidential campaign, hundreds of Congressional seats up for grabs and a host of local elections, while 2002 didn't include the presidential election. This year's estimated $250 million in election advertising is 15% higher than 2001's $218 million and 1999's $124 million. But it's also higher than the $211 million spent in campaign advertising in 1998, which featured mid-term Congressional elections and a number of statewide races throughout the country.
"Those are big leaps and those amounts are continuing to go up," said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.
McGehee said that while there may not be as many competitive races in an off-year, in the races that are competitive, campaigns absolutely have to be on television. And the reality of television is that it costs money, and lots of it, to break through in a fragmented media landscape.
"They're having to buy more GRPs to get through the clutter," McGehee said.
Tracey said that the primary race to run against President George W. Bush was being run by primarily regional candidates who need advertising in key states to raise their profile. Democratic candidate and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is already running spots in Iowa and could soon begin in South Carolina and Michigan, other key states. Other candidates could follow in an attempt to get an advantage and name recognition.
"They may decide that look, instead of waiting until January or February to run ads, it'll be in the end a little cheaper [to start running them now] because you won't have to fight the other candidates as much later," Tracey said.
Another factor could be the advertising activities of an opposing party's candidate or a special-interest group. Last year there were at least five campaigns that featured ads not from the candidates in the primaries themselves but others trying to influence the vote. Tracey said he wouldn't be surprised if, for example, some Republican interest groups go against the frontrunner or the conventional-wisdom candidate they'd like to run against in November.
Interest groups that might want to do that would, at least for this primary cycle, be subject to the current campaign finance laws that require a 30-day blackout period for issues groups to run campaign ads. For the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, for instance, the 30-day period falls in the holiday period, what some might consider an inappropriate period for attack ads. That will not only cause those ads to be purchased and run in 2003 but also earlier than usual.
"If you're an issue group and you want to run some negative ads in the Democratic primary, you're going to want to run in October or November," Tracey said.
Sheila Krumholz, research director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said that she's heard from political strategists, consultants and academics that the average person is feeling frustrated about the flood of campaign advertising.
"There's serious concern about the voters tuning out because they're being flooded with an overwhelming amount of information, and it's starting earlier," said Krumholz. "The campaigns are starting earlier and they are becoming more of a barrage, as opposed to feeling educated the voter feels overwhelmed."
Krumholz said that while the consumer may be feeling that way, it's not showing up in research from focus groups and other areas about how voters best take in information. "It seems like the general rule has been don't take any chances, use every available means to spread the message. That extends beyond broadcast and print and phones, to the Internet, which is especially appealing because of the low-cost factor relative to TV," she said.
"Certainly some of the more successful campaigns have chosen to put some dollars on the air early in order to not have to compete with the clutter," said Tracey. "I'm not sure but there's a lot of reasons why people don't vote, and I don't think that having a lot of advertising on the air does that much" one way or the other.