Stateline Story

Big Spending Candidates Setting Records

  • September 25, 2002
  • By Kathleen Murphy
So far this year, gubernatorial candidates have poured at least $200 million into TV campaign adsand it's paying off.

The candidate who buys the most TV time wins most of the time, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which studies campaign spending and advertising.

Clearly, the candidates themselves believe massive TV spending gives them a huge advantage--if campaign records are any indication. U.S. political ad spending could reach a record-setting $1.2 billion this year, said Linda Pittman, director of spot broadcast for global media agency Optimedia International.

That's 1,000 times more than spending 30 years ago, and twice as much as the total just two years ago, Pittman said.

Contributing to this year's increase are rising advertising costs and the fact that governorships are at stake in pricey big media markets like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, New York and California.

Candidates spend big bucks for TV advertising, particularly if they are newcomers or not well known, to boost name recognition. Or, they make an appeal to voters' emotions or even tear even down a potentially strong rival with negative ads.

Even though government fiat allows politicos to obtain the lowest unit cost for ads running in the 60 days before an election, TV time is costly especially in states like California where TV helps reach a large population.

The campaign of California Gov. Gray Davis, for example, spent $10 million in a blitz in the Democratic primary alone even though Davis did not have strong opposition.

Instead, Davis looked ahead to the general election, running ads against former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, whom he figured would be a strong GOP candidate. Riordan lost the Republican primary to a well-heeled businessman, Bill Simon who put $5 million of his own money into the primary and has already written his general election campaign a $4 million check.

Equally large sums of campaign cash are being spent in other states:

  • In New York, gubernatorial candidates are expected to spend $50 million on ads before the November balloting. Billionaire businessman Tom Golisano, running as an independent, has said he will spend part of his personal fortune to campaign in the three-way battle with Republican Gov. George Pataki and Democrat nominee H. Carl McCall, the state comptroller. But Golisano is a political unknown and his deep pockets are not expected to bring a victory.

  • Well-known Florida Democrat Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general, lost the Sept. 10 primary to attorney Bill McBride who spent nine times more on TV advertising. A number of Democratic leaders also believed McBride could make a stronger run against the incumbent, Gov. Jeb Bush. McBride has already used $4.5 million on ads accusing Gov. Jeb Bush of smearing him. His ads targeted Tampa Bay and heavily populated Democratic strongholds in South Florida.

  • Wisconsin Democrat Jim Doyle, the state's attorney general, won the gubernatorial primary after funneling $1.4 million into TV ads. Doyle spent at least $200,000 more than opponents U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Doyle's ads, which blanketed the state, featured his two adopted African-American sons, addressed the issue of fiscal responsibility, and promised he "will fight to make health care more affordable."

  • Ohio Republican Gov. Bob Taft is expected to launch a $6 million TV barrage before November. But Democratic challenger Tim Hagan has said he will probably not run television ads because of insufficient funds and instead is putting advertisements on the Internet.

    Erik Potholm, partner in Republican ad makers Stevens Reed Curcio, an Alexandria, Va. firm working for Taft and the New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial nominee, businessman Craig Benson, said, "TV has never been as important as it is today to communicate your message. Candidates that don't have the resources to go on TV most of the time aren't going to be successful."

    There are exceptions, though. Popular Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm was victorious despite being outspent in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary by former U.S. House Democratic Whip David Bonior. The St. Clair County Democratic Party aired over $1 million worth of ads on Bonior's behalf.

    Even if a candidate has money for TV ads, advertising sometimes can be ineffective, especially for a lesser-known candidate.

    Massachusetts businessman Steve Grossman, former Democratic state party chairman, dropped out of the gubernatorial primary in July after a $1 million ad purchase failed to increase his popularity.

    Grossman said, "I had the lowest name recognition of anyone in the race. The ads didn't move numbers as much as we had hoped."