Show Me The Money – Virginias first $100M election

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Last year more campaigns for General Assembly seats took to the airwaves than ever before with more than $100 million spent, a large percentage on television buys. This was a first, many political analysts say, and could portend a future of big spending on small races.

In the past most General Assembly campaigns considered television ads too expensive and not very effective because candidates would be paying to broadcast messages far beyond their districts, said Mark Rozell, a Public Policy professor at George Mason University. But local campaigns every year look more and more like congressional races, with consultants, polling, mass media buys.

That statewide trend hit Alexandria for the first time in 2007, with well-heeled Republican challenger Mark Allen raising and spending $265,490 in a losing attempt to unseat incumbent Del. David Englin (D-45).

While Allen, a wealthy real estate attorney, did not contribute any of his own funds to his campaign, according to Virginia Election Commission reports, and was soundly defeated by 28 percentage points, he spent a combined $108,000 on polling, research and consultants, and another $25,000 on TV and radio buys. Allen was unreachable for  comment.

In a delegate race at our level spending money on television ads is an ego buy, Englin said. Its not about winning votes. I strongly encourage any opponent to spend large blocks of money on television. It isnt going to win the election.

Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49) agreed. No, not yet, Ebbin said when asked if he thought television ads would start popping up more frequently in Alexandria races. While television might be the most intrusive medium, he said, there is nothing more effective than door to door campaigning.

In 2008, the election is mostly being played out on the airwaves. This years presidential primary season has generated the most televised advertising in the history of politics. Since the beginning of the campaign, the candidates have spent $107 million on airing television ads.

In January alone, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) doled out $11.2 million on television ads, outpacing Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton ($9.5 million), John McCain ($5 million), and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ($7.2 million).

$3 billion for TV buys 
Between ads produced by the campaigns and issue advocacy groups, an October study by the Campaign Media Analysis Group at TNS Media projected over $3 billion would be used on television ads this year. That is nearly twice as much as was spent in the 2004 presidential race ($1.7 billion).

But how this will affect Virginias and, more specifically, Alexandrias local cable programming remains to be seen. With the record amount of money raised in this years presidential race, analysts have dissected every television ad for signs of new strategy and experts have scrutinized where candidates are airing their ads.

With Virginias important Feb. 20 primary, local network affiliates expected an influx in political advertising. Those expectations were not met, though, and the networks are unsure how much air time the candidates will purchase in the general election. Moreover, local and national businesses, who planned for a shortage of ad space as political campaigns bought significant amounts of air time, have not been affected by the political season yet.

While campaign finance reports revealing how much each candidate spent on television advertising in Virginia before the primary wont be released until the middle of March, advertising sales reps at local affiliates said the candidates spent less than the networks thought they would.

The campaigns havent spent a great deal with us yet, one such rep said, on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly about the networks sales. It has kind of been a crap shoot. We only received money from the Clinton, Obama and Mike Huckabee campaigns. McCain was on for a little bit, but as soon as Mitt Romney dropped out they cancelled their ads. There have been a variety of different predictions but it was lighter in the primary season than we thought it would be.

We had a little activity prior to the primary, but not a ton yet, another local network rep said.

Moreover, local and national companies havent seen the crunch in ad space that was expected. I havent run into a problem of limited availability this year in Virginia, Jane Fanuka of Ad Vantage Media said. Fanuka places television ads for the Don Beyer Automotive Group. Ive seen a crunch in ad space happen in the past, I just havent seen it happen recently.

Im not under the impression that there is less ad space out there, said Mike Green, the sales manager at Don Beyer Volvo in Alexandria.

Proctor and Gamble, whose products span from home cleaning supplies (Dawn dish soap, Tide laundry detergent) to personal hygiene (Gillette, Head and Shoulders) to food (Pringles, Folgers coffee) and Pet food (Iams), also said the political season has not influenced their national advertising strategy. I cant predict what will happen in the future, said Jennifer Nunnelly, a spokeswoman for Proctor and Gamble. At this point in time, it hasnt had an affect on us.

Virginia television stations dont know what to anticipate in the general election. The ad buys could be significant or they just could not be. I dont think it has ever been so unsure, the TV ad rep said.

Political analysts say there is little doubt Virginians will see plenty of television advertisements this year. Because Virginia has elected several Democrats to statewide offices recently, culminating with Jim Webbs defeat of incumbent George Allen in the 2006 Senate race, most now label Virginia a competitive swing state for the presidential election.

Virginia is in play in the presidential campaign, said Mark Rozell, a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. In the past we have been neglected by the candidates because of the assumption that it was a reliably Republican-voting state at the presidential level.

Being a swing state, the reasoning goes, will lead to increased campaigning by candidates in both parties and increased television ads. This year we will be exposed to heavy advertising by both campaigns, and party activity in the state will be much greater than in the previous several elections cycles.

I suspect that well easily break the record for most money spent on television ads in Virginia, added Larry Sabato, political Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia

Moreover, as was previously reported in this series, Democratic Senate Candidate Mark Warners hefty $2.8 million war chest suggests he will take to the airwaves as the election nears. Warner will make sure he outspends Gilmore three or four to one, maybe a lot more, Sabato said. No doubt Warner will spend a great deal on TV ads.

And while the presidential primary season didnt yield as many political ads as the networks expected, Virginians have certainly seen plenty of campaign ads in the past year.

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