Government: TACTICS: ELECTION '96
BILL'S FIRST-STRIKE TV BLITZ
Clinton may already have spent $15 million--and it's paying off
To Denver TV viewers, the ads are becoming as familiar as the faces of Alex Trebek and Vanna White. Sometimes squeezed between Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, an image appears: a dour-looking Bob Dole in grainy black and white. A somber voice intones that the Republican standard-bearer voted no on everything from Medicare to the environment. Dissolve to a pink-cheeked President Clinton on a podium. His budget protects education, health care, and kids, viewers are assured. Cut to a happy couple holding a baby as the announcer declares: "It's time to say yes to America's families."
Summer has just arrived, but Denver and other selected U.S. cities have been bombarded for months by hundreds of reelection messages sponsored by the folks who bring you Bill Clinton. The Clintonites are in the midst of the biggest--and earliest--broadcast assault in the annals of Presidential politics.
Between Mar. 1 and June 14, the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's reelection committee ran more than 17,000 spots, according to National Media Inc., a Republican media consultant which tracks political advertising. (The DNC and the Clinton campaign won't discuss details of their media buys.) The spots are playing in 50 mostly medium-size markets in 25 states--far from the eyes of Beltway pundits. The cost: about $15 million so far this year, with possibly $100 million spent by November, far more than in '92.
Clintonites began plotting their early media campaign last summer, when they realized the GOP Presidential nomination would probably be decided by late March and voters could start making up their minds. So the President's team set out to co-opt popular Republican issues, such as crime and welfare reform, and to deflect attention from GOP causes like tax cuts. Using polls that showed voters liked Clinton's defense of Medicare, student loans, and the environment, strategists decided to hammer Dole on these points. "Initial political impressions can be very persuasive," says Ann Lewis, deputy campaign manager, who notes that the ads enable Clinton to take a positive message directly to the people.
OFF GUARD. Now Dole is playing catch-up. A cash crunch delayed a strong rebuttal from the Dole camp, caught off guard by the immensity of the Clinton blitz. Though the GOP placed some early ads, only now is the Republican National Committee unleashing its own $20 million media campaign, with ads lambasting Clinton for vetoing welfare reform bills and for his 1993 tax increase. But says Robert P. Leone, professor of marketing at Ohio State University: "Clinton has had the advantage of defining the terms in an uncluttered environment." Now, he says, Dole "has to convince me that what I have heard for two months isn't true."
The ads are aimed at swing voters, and their placement provides a road map to the President's electoral strategy. He's focusing on small and midsize cities like Fresno, Calif.; Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Raleigh, N.C.; Green Bay, Wis.; and Toledo--all home to blue-collar Reagan Democrats. They're also targeting suburban communities such as Orlando and Grand Rapids that lean Republican but are Democratic "persuadables." And Clinton hopes to retain his lead among women by emphasizing family issues.
The Clintonites are avoiding states the President has little chance of winning (Utah and Alabama) and those already in the bag (New York). Although the GOP has the edge in the South, Clinton believes he can repeat his 1992 victories in Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. And he's buying heavily in Florida and North Carolina, states he lost by close margins in '92. In the targeted markets, the ads are airing on a gamut of shows, from CBS's Sunday Morning to tabloid TV like Inside Edition to daytime talk shows like Live with Regis & Kathie Lee.
White House strategists attribute Clinton's lead in the polls in part to the TV campaign. Although it's hard to isolate the ads' direct impact, changes have been dramatic in some states that have been bombarded. In Connecticut, Clinton's lead soared by 20 points between early March and early June. But in Michigan, which will be one of the hardest-fought states this fall, the ads have barely budged the President's job approval ratings, in the low 50s for months. But they're keeping him from losing support because of negative publicity, such as the Whitewater investigation and GOP attacks. Says Lansing (Mich.) independent pollster Ed Sarpolus: "They're neutralizing some of the hits."
TUNE OUT. Jay Schulberg, chief creative officer of Bozell Worldwide, a New York ad agency, says the spots are important because they bolster Clinton's image as a President standing firm. "There's a subconscious association of [Clinton] as a good product and good brand," he says. "By having a strong and positive presence month after month, people will tend to overlook momentary problems."
But the Denver ads haven't won over everyone. Says Elwin E. Shaklee, a locksmith who describes himself as conservative: "They haven't changed my mind about him. They've cheapened him."
A sustained marketing campaign also risks causing voters to tune out. Moreover, Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant and principal at National Media, says that Clinton, by portraying himself in the ads as father-protector, "has to become something he's not, and that's hard to sustain."
But the President's media strategists are betting that if they make their case enough times, voters will go for a new and improved Bill Clinton, even if they don't buy the whole pitch. That means the couch potatoes of America may be hearing a lot more from the Pitchman-in-Chief as the campaign unfolds.By Susan B. Garland, with Richard S. Dunham in Washington and Sandra Dallas in Denver