The first significant shots of the 2016 presidential television ad air war—likely to cost $2 billion or more by November 2016—have been fired. The largest expenditures to date have been the multi-million dollar buys each from New Day for America, the super-PAC supporting Ohio Governor John Kasich, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign. Over the weekend, news broke of an impending $10 million buy from Right to Rise, the super-PAC backing former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s candidacy, to be distributed among several early states.
For a media world that’s desperate to know how the war might go, these early blasts—measured in dollars—often take on an outsize significance. But it’s all too easy to misinterpret these early buys, and therefore misunderstand the battle.
The money trail
The TV ad market is dizzyingly complex. Just looking at the amount of dollars spent in total or even in a particular market tells us little about what messages are reaching which targeted voters at what frequency—the key question that should concern political observers, practitioners, and analysts. In fact, political advertising may be one aspect of politics where following the money isn’t the key to understanding.
Fogging the battlefield are numerous rules and pricing anomalies. First of all, different advertisers pay different amounts for spots on the same program—even spots in the same commercial pod. For example, within 60 days of a general election, and within 45 days of a primary, by federal law, candidates for federal office are guaranteed what’s called the lowest-unit-rate for buying advertising. And even outside the so-called LUR window, there can be enormous differences in the rates paid by candidates and groups for the exact same advertising. Take, for example, some recent buys on WMUR, a broadcast station in the crucial early primary state of New Hampshire
During the first week of August, media buyers representing both candidates and groups ordered spots on ABC’s top-rated Good Morning America. On Aug. 5, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's campaign paid $700 for a 30-second spot and Clinton’s campaign paid a proportional $1,400 for a 60-second spot. America Leads (Christie’s PAC) and New Day for America (Kasich’s PAC) also aired spots on Good Morning America that day, but paid almost three times as much—$2,000 for a 30-second spot from America Leads and $4,000 for a 60-second spot for New Day for America. Non-candidate money from groups, as a rule, buys much less ad than the same amount spent by the campaigns proper.
This was certainly the case in 2012 when, pretty much across the board, the Democrats were outspent by the GOP in the presidential race. But a much higher percentage of Republican money came from super-PACs and other groups. As a result, the GOP spent more, but got less. Amazingly, the Romney campaign actually compounded this problem. Although Romney’s ad people, like their counterparts in Chicago, had the legal right to buy spots at the LUR, they often did not take full advantage of this right. Wanting particular (and more costly) guarantees of when their spots would air, the Romney campaign often paid more for the exact same advertising buys.
Journalists are rarely precise about the time periods and exact markets of the ad buys about which they tweet—$1 million spent in Cedar Rapids in one month is a lot, $1 million spent in five months targeting New Hampshire with purchases on pricey Boston stations, not so much.
The media obsession with ad dollars has been driven by the availability of what political professionals call the “competitive.” As Elizabeth Wilner, head of Kantar Media CMAG, writes in the Cook Political Report, “Every week during the thick and even the thin of a presidential race (or any other race featuring TV ads), dozens to hundreds of e-mails fly between TV stations, local cable systems, ad sales rep firms and political media buyers informing the group of bids for airtime—not just their own but everyone else's.”
This practice would be unethical and probably illegal if the stations were providing Budweiser’s ad agency with information on where Miller’s agency had just ordered advertising. It, however, has been the norm in politics for the last few election cycles. Media buyers process the information on what spot time has been ordered and use it for strategic purposes to track where their enemies—and increasingly their friends with whom they cannot coordinate—are buying ads. This information, provided as a service by the TV stations, is now also increasingly being passed along—sometimes even sold—by partisan media buyers to members of the news media, who then report the ad buys with bullet point after bullet point of dollar figures.
Some of the reporting around the competitive can also be foggy. For example, recent media coverage of a Marco Rubio campaign order clearly used “competitive information” and spoke of the wisdom of an early buy that supposedly advantaged his campaign with early pricing and guarantees placements. But, in fact, rates are not yet available for many of the times that the Florida senator's campaign supposedly guaranteed placement. Unlike airlines, TV stations never really run out of seats and you can get bumped while about to board the plane if someone decides they want to pay more for the seat. Ad time is never really guaranteed (unless a campaign pays a very high guaranteed price) and ads don’t air at a certain price until they air at that price.
This is why the raw numbers of ad purchases don’t necessarily mean that much. They’re like partial un-weighted survey data after the first night of calling in a political poll.
Still, even with all these warnings about measuring the political ad air war, the ad activity now, as well as the Clinton buy over the last couple of weeks, is worth our attention. To understand why, let’s remember that scholarly work on political communication—not to mention common sense—suggests that advertising should have a greater impact when people are less familiar with the candidates, attitudes are more fluid and when one side has an advantage in communicating their message.
In fact, the dominant view of academics is that in general elections the partisan pre-dispositions of voters and underlying economic factors either favor a candidate or they don't and no amount of campaign spending or television advertising can change attitudes and outcomes. The skepticism also rests on the argument that even if such advertising had the potential to change entrenched minds and outweigh the effects of economic conditions, there would need to be measurable differences between the competing advertising campaigns—something not often seen in competitive battles.
But in primary battles, voters don’t have their partisanship to use as a shortcut and at this stage in the primary season, many Republican still are not familiar with their party’s contestants. Furthermore, unlike what we will see in battleground states in the general election and in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina as their nomination contests draw nearer, most candidates are not on TV, and television is not flooded with political advertising. In other words, if advertising is ever going to have an effect it is going to be now, when attitudes are soft and the air war can be one-sided.
While the effects are seldom huge, early advertising campaigns can provide important preliminary evidence or be a “tell” for the potential effectiveness of a campaign’s message. For instance, the pro-Kasich super-PAC's $2 million buy certainly seems to have moved his numbers and helped get him in the conversation in New Hampshire—though the caveat should be quickly added that the nomination is a very, very long way.
With very little paid media opposition, it will be interesting to see if the buys on behalf of Bush resonate with Republican primary voters this fall. Even more interesting to political observers is the impact of the Clinton campaign's ad buy, which has been up on the air unopposed for over two weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire. Both campaigns are well-financed and staffed with top strategists. Assessing the impact of these first buys will be our first evidence about whether the dogs will eat the dog food.
(Corrects fourth paragraph to reflect WMUR is not New Hampshire's only broadcast station.)