Politically Connected

In battleground states, a deluge of campaign cash transforms local TV markets like Roanoke, Va.

Roanoke, Va., makes up half of the 68th-largest DMA in the country, and while it’s just a four-hour drive from Washington, D.C., it may as well be a world away. A local joke has it that each mile between Roanoke and the nation’s capital equates to one more year going back in time. But this year, Roanoke is most definitely inside the Beltway.

Roanoke is the westernmost of Virginia’s major cities, far away from the wasteland of decaying strip malls surrounding D.C. like a moat. Heading south from Roanoke toward North Carolina, several places have fallen on hard times—among them, Henry County (with an unemployment rate of 11.4 percent and rising), Halifax County (11.5 percent and rising) and the city of Danville (13.1 percent and rising).

This is the South. The continental breakfast buffet at an airport hotel includes a Crock-Pot full of grits. When people around here ask how you’re doing, they really mean it. Virginia is as down-home as it gets. It’s also home to the all-powerful swing voter in this election year.

Virginia has quietly liberalized. It wasn’t even considered a swing state in 2008, when the Roanoke-Lynchburg market’s four major TV stations reportedly pulled in a combined $5.6 million during that record-breaking season for political ad spending. Some of that revenue came by way of direct spending by candidates, for which stations are required to charge the lowest unit rate. Others came in the form of “issue” ads purchased by ostensibly independent groups. For those commercials, the stations could charge what the market would bear.

What a difference four years has made.

As of Oct. 2, Roanoke’s CBS affiliate WDBJ alone had raked in some $5.72 million, exclusively due to issue ads from Super PACs. With those buys as well as ads from the presidential campaigns, the senate candidates and the local congressional race (dominated by a debate over the ban on mining the seam of uranium under Pittsylvania County), WDBJ’s total take from this year’s election could certainly exceed $20 million. How does Schurz Communications, the owner of WDBJ, react to the sudden wealth? “They’re not pissed off,” cracks general manager Jeff Marks. (Schurz confirms this.)

Some pundits have dubbed the 2012 campaign “the digital election.”

But they’re wrong.

Digital appeals targeted to narrow, or “microtargeted,” demographics have become trendy, but a new study by way of scientists at Yale University and the University of Massachusetts found that voters are actually indifferent when they’re addressed directly and downright hostile when targeted by mistake, as often is the case.

Meanwhile, the electorate is horrified that political campaigns are mining their data, according to the study.

All Photos: Ben Shaul

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