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Cluster of Early Primaries Means New Media Strategy

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NEW YORK After the last primary-season campaign ad runs in New Hampshire this Tuesday, the presidential candidates will be forced to rethink their media strategies.

In contrast to the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire, when candidates were able to concentrate spending in smaller markets, they now are faced with contests in 25 states, including Florida, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina this month, followed by 21 states on Feb. 5.

So far, the candidates have spent some $80 million on the presidential race, with as much as $50 million concentrated in Iowa alone, according to Evan Tracey, COO of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a division of TNS Media Intelligence. Tracey estimates that another $40 million to $50 million will be spent between now and Feb. 5.

That's a lot of ground to cover in little time. Campaigns "will have to be more efficient," Tracey said. "I don't see a repeat of Iowa in all Feb. 5 states. It will be important for candidates to have both a broad and targeted message."

But if candidates choose to turn to celebrity cachet, their message could suffer—although the so-called Oprah effect didn't appear to hurt Barack Obama's Iowa turnout. According to a recent survey from E-Poll, only about 16 percent of respondents 18 and over said an endorsement by a celebrity they admire would positively influence the perception of the candidate being supported. Approximately 74 percent said a celebrity endorsement would have no bearing. And one in 10 individuals surveyed said a celebrity endorsement would negatively affect their perception of a candidate—even if they liked the celebrity.

Mary Ann Farrell, svp of research at E-Poll, said the cause is "too much information ... I think people are a little more skeptical of celebrities now because of the emphasis on their personal lives, [often placing them in a negative light], which gives them less power than they had before." Farrell added the relative insignificance of celebrity endorsements in the findings was surprising, given the influence of pop culture on society.

The influence of celebrities appeared to fall along party lines. One-quarter of registered Democrats polled said a star could help a candidate shine a little brighter, as opposed to just 12 percent of their Republican counterparts. And three-quarters of swing voters said there would be no impact at all on their opinion of a candidate.

But no matter who appears in the ads, broadcast TV is still expected to be the big winner in states such as South Carolina, Michigan, Nevada and Florida. Even with tight conditions in Iowa and cable and radio pitching hard, broadcast TV got the bulk of spending there, at $40 million, with $10 million spilling over into other media.

Candidates could turn to more cost-effective national media such as network radio, Tracey speculated. Radio execs seem to think it's a long shot, but they're not ruling it out. Republican maverick Ron Paul already has bought ads on XM Satellite Radio channels.

Cable execs also think media strategies will stay local. "Buys can be crafted to match constituents—within markets, you can go down to the zone level," said Chuck Thompson, evp for the Cabletelevision Ad Bureau.

"Campaigns are wired into the spot buying process," said Jack Poor, vp, marketing for the Television Bureau of Advertising. "National is not as nimble as local, plus there is no control over the distribution or geography."

For agencies and marketers negotiating the flow of political dollars, it's a week-by-week proposition. But the consensus is that political spots probably won't cause major inventory roadblocks until after Feb. 5, when the nominee field becomes clearer.