For Lyndon Johnson, it was "Daisy." For Ronald Reagan, it was "Morning in America." For George H.W. Bush, it was "Willie Horton." In a presidential election year, when roughly half of all citizens old enough to vote turn up at the polls to choose America's next leader, political advertising jams the airwaves. As Election Day nears, the dull roar becomes a numbing crush. But sometimes one ad stands out—one that is striking, memorable or provocative enough to define the race, to change the course of the contest and even alter the outcome.
No one knows what the breakthrough ad will be in 2004, or even if there will be one. But already it seems clear that voters will be subjected to an unprecedented barrage of political ads. More than 4,000 have aired in Des Moines, Iowa, alone since January, compared with fewer than 900 at a similar point in the 2000 presidential race, and candidates have spent an estimated $8 million-plus nationwide, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. The bulk of the spending is in the early-decision states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but ads are up (or plans for them have been announced) in such states as South Carolina, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
"Not only are we seeing an influx of early and heavy advertising overall, we are seeing significantly more advertising than in 2000, when we had two quite competitive nominating contests," says Ken Goldstein, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The early start lends weight to expectations that 2004 will be at least as rich in ad spending as 2000, which set a record for a presidential race. Some predict 2004 will match or exceed the overall record for political ad spending of an estimated $1 billion set in 2002, when big states including New York, California and Texas held competitive, expensive gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. (In 2000 and 2002, TV advertising accounted for the lion's share of spending; see chart on page 22.)
Prognosticators are sticking with those expectations despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week to uphold key features of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, more commonly known as McCain-Feingold, since political candidates and groups have proved adroit at fundraising that complies with the law's complex provisions. "Political advertising is here to stay, campaign-finance reform or not," says Evan Tracey, COO of TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group. McCain-Feingold keeps political parties from accepting large, anonymous donations. Nevertheless, says Tracey, "it's hard to believe that money leaves the process."
The strategies are beginning to crystallize for President Bush's re-election campaign and the various Democratic challengers. Based on the first Republican National Committee ad, which aired Nov. 23, Bush's creative strategy seems likely to focus on themes such as strength and moral clarity, exemplified by the war in Iraq and the defense against terrorism. The 30-second spot shows footage of Bush delivering the State of the Union address before Congress last January. The words "strong and principled leadership" appear onscreen. A voiceover says, "Some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others." The spot then calls on viewers to tell Congress "to support the president's policy of pre-emptive self-defense."
For the most part, the Democrats are running issue ads to distinguish themselves from one another. But they are also attacking Bush. Immediately after the RNC's spot broke, Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, launched an Internet appeal to fund a reply. An ad was on the air the following day, countering what it called the RNC's "first attempt to define and distort the upcoming election." Dean launched his first TV ads in Iowa in June, adding New Hampshire in August and buying radio spots in South Carolina in September.
Attacking Bush on Iraq has given Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chance to contrast his military and foreign-affairs experience with Bush's. Kerry's 30-second "Carrier" spot, which broke in Iowa and New Hampshire on Nov. 11, uses footage of Bush's appearance in May on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln under a banner that read, "Mission Accomplished." A voiceover says, "Who can take on George Bush and change the direction of the nation? John Kerry. A leader on national security. A decorated combat veteran."
"Bush's swagger across the deck communicates the folly of this administration's policy," says Jim Margolis, a senior partner at GMMB in Washington and a top Kerry media aid. "The mission is not accomplished in Iraq or on healthcare or on 'leave no child behind' in terms of education. In the ad, viewers see John Kerry, who not only has a history in terms of experience and foreign policy but also comes off as someone who can go toe-to-toe with George Bush."
In the race for the Democratic nomination, Iowa reflects the emerging trends. Political ads began airing in the state in the summer and, after some fits and starts, have been a continual presence since early November, says Dan Lyons, general sales manager for WHO-TV in Des Moines, an NBC affiliate owned by The New York Times Co. Four Democrats—Dean, Kerry, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.—have dominated spending and airtime, with Dean even buying 30-minute blocks to air a biographical ad. Lyons says his calculations indicate TV ad spending will run about 20 percent ahead of the total for the caucus season four years ago.
"What you're seeing is people spending money on their issues instead of attacking," says Lyons.
The climate for advertising is tougher than ever for the candidates, says John Brabender, co-founder of BrabenderCox, a political ad agency in Pittsburgh. Brabender, who has worked on more than 200 political campaigns, and others say ads need to be innovative and entertaining if they are to persuade a skeptical and preoccupied electorate. "Ads are having much less impact than they were a decade ago," Brabender says. "I find this in focus groups: People are so skeptical about political ads."
The rippling-flag, jacket-slung-over-shoulder ad is passé, Brabender says. Political ads today need to display all the production values and creative savvy of slick spots for consumer products—but they have to be churned out in a fraction of the time. Also, a provision of McCain-Feingold mandates that candidates appear onscreen to say they have approved the ad's message—a requirement that slices three to four seconds off a 30-second spot. And it imparts another kind of burden, too. "By putting that candidate's name and face to that message, it's got to be presented in an upstanding way," says Vinnie Minchillo, creative director for Scott Howell & Co., a Dallas political ad firm that helped candidates win three Senate races in 2002.
To fund the ads, the campaign war chests continue to grow on both sides. Bush was first to reject matching federal funds for the primary elections—a stance that frees him from a spending limit of $45 million. With a well-organized cadre of donors and a busy speaking schedule, Bush crossed the $100 million fundraising mark in mid-November with a trip to Florida. He is on track to raise $170-200 million, all for a primary season in which he faces no Republican challenger. After the major party conventions in August, Bush and his opponent are each expected to accept $70 million in public funds for the two-month sprint to Election Day.
A sustained blitz of ads is expected to begin sometime in the spring, once the Democratic nominee is known. Bush will bankroll months of advertising that is expected to focus on his opponent's weaknesses as much as his own strengths. Veteran campaign observer Ron Faucheux, editor in chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine, has said that he envisions Bush launching a $30 million, three-week flight of ads after the Democratic nominee emerges, "built around unflattering quotes from Democrats about their party's standard-bearer."
The prospect of such an ad blitz has energized Democrats and their allies. According to candidates' filings with the Federal Election Commission, Dean had raised roughly $25 million by the end of September, an impressive total for a grassroots, Internet-driven effort but far short of the Bush juggernaut. The disparity does not escape Dean. In a message to supporters, he said that limiting his campaign to matching funds "will hinder our reform efforts ... giving the Bush campaign a spending advantage of $170 million, which they will use to define and distort us from March to August." It was no surprise last month when Dean, too, decided to forego public financing. Within days, Kerry said he, too, would not use public financing.
Democratic-leaning groups are also moving into the field. MoveOn.org, an Internet-based group with a staff of seven employees who work out of their homes and a mailing list of 1.7 million, says it plans to spend $10 million in an attempt to define Bush. "It'll go to running ads in swing states," says Eli Pariser, international campaigns director for the group. MoveOn counts among its backers financier George Soros, who has pledged up to $5 million for the ad campaign.
Such largesse worries RNC chairman Ed Gillespie. In a letter to Dean, he noted that "special interest groups like the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, the group founded by billionaire George Soros, are raising up to $421 million to spend on the presidential election next year." Gillespie challenged Dean to ask the groups to disclose all funding sources and amounts, noting that unlike party-affiliated groups, the independent organizations are not bound by McCain-Feingold limits, such as that law's $2,000 limit for individual contributions to presidential campaigns. The Democratic National Committee shot back that GOP-leaning groups are readying "plans to dump tens of millions of dollars into Bush's re-election effort."
The independent groups are gaining in prominence in part because of the 2002 campaign finance law, named for its sponsors, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. The legislation was meant to lessen the influence of so-called "soft money"—large, undisclosed contributions to political parties from corporate or union treasuries which accounted for more than $450 million in spending in 2000. McCain-Feingold acts in two major ways: It bars political parties from accepting such donations, and it forbids independent groups (which may accept large donations) from airing so-called "issue ads" 30 days before primaries and 60 days before general elections. In recent elections, such ads have run frequently, averting use of such terms as "vote for" or "vote against" while still attempting to influence voters.
The Supreme Court upheld both key features of McCain-Feingold last week. Thus, organizations such as the major parties' senatorial and congressional campaign committees, which spent heavily in 2000, could play lesser roles this election cycle. Meanwhile, independent groups and the campaigns themselves become the major players. "The dollars are still going to be there," says Brabender. "Just the direction they're coming from has changed a little bit."
If the money is arriving from new directions, it is expected to flow to the same places: the key primary states first; then, during the general election campaign, to the states that were closely contested in 2000. For the primaries, that means the run-up to the Jan. 19 caucuses in Iowa and the Jan. 27 voting in New Hampshire, with expenditures soon to follow in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, Michigan and other states. Primary season, which once stretched through June, could effectively be over by March 2, the date of the Super Tuesday set of primaries that may prove decisive. States going to the polls that day include California, Georgia, New York and Ohio.
For the general election, spending patterns will follow dynamics imparted by the electoral college, with each campaign seeking to tip hotly contested states into their column. "All the close states—that's where you'll see the money go. And the others will be ignored," says Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
The logic is ironclad: Campaigns won't spend money to persuade voters who are already on their side. New Jersey, for example, can expect little spending since it is considered an increasingly reliable Democratic state. (Some New Jersey TV viewers may see ad flights on Philadelphia stations aimed at voters in Pennsylvania.)
Pennsylvania figures high on many short lists of big states in play, and so could be deluged with ad dollars. Campaigns will choose their ad buys after extensive polling, in response to the race's evolving dynamics. But already it seems clear that ad dollars will flow to states that gave Bush or Gore margins of less than 6 percent in 2000. These include Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.
Florida, of course, belongs in this group, but it may be in a class of its own next year. Bob Graham, its Democratic senator, has decided not to run for a fourth term, creating what is expected to be a wide-open race. Memories of the Florida recount in 2000 will leave both parties especially eager to seize the electoral vote there. Republicans are already nervous because Katherine Harris, who played such a public role in the recount as Florida's secretary of state (and who is now a Republican congresswoman), has expressed interest in Graham's seat. Her campaign, some Republicans fear, could stir up bitter memories of 2000 and drive Florida Democrats to the polls in record numbers.
Freshman Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., who spent $14 million to unseat a Democrat, Carol Moseley Braun, is also not standing for re-election. Ads from various possible successors have been on the air in Illinois since June.
To craft their messages, all of the presidential contenders are relying mainly on veterans from previous national races. Bush-Cheney '04 appears ready to return to its media strategizing roots. In May, the campaign named Matthew Dowd as director of polling and media planning. Dowd is president and founding partner of Austin, Texas-based Public Strategies Inc., a public affairs firm that handled the Bush advertising in 2000 along with Maverick Media, also in Austin. Dowd declined requests for an interview.
Sources told Adweek that Dowd and the campaign have tapped Bush veteran Mark McKinnon as media/advertising director to run the ad campaign day-to-day. Joining him will be Harold Kaplan, a creative director at New York agency Young & Rubicam; Hispanic-ad specialist Lionel Sosa, who founded what is now Bromley Communications in San Antonio and also ran Garcia LKS; and Scott Howell of Scott Howell & Co. Both Kaplan and Sosa were on Bush's media team in 2000.
Among the Democrats: Dean's top man is strategist Joe Trippi of Trippi McMahon & Squier, known for hard-hitting ads. In addition to Margolis, whose résumé includes Walter Mondale's presidential bid in 1984, Kerry is working with Bob Shrum. Known as a powerful speech writer, Shrum advised Al Gore in the 2000 race.
Gephardt has rehired his 1988 presidential campaign consultant, Bill Carrick of Morris Carrick & Guma/Murphy Putnam Media. Edwards has enlisted David Axelrod of Chicago-based Axelrod & Associates, who worked on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has retained Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn, who formed the firm Integrity Minded Media. And Wesley Clark has hired Democratic media consulting firm Joe Slade White.
Whatever the candidates' ad messages turn out to be, one thing is clear: There will be no shortage of them.