The bully pulpit ain’t what it used to be. That’s the lesson President Obama learned when his assault on Bain Capital was drowned out by Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker. It’s no better for Mitt Romney, who lost control of his narrative when the mere prospect that a group unaffiliated with his campaign might run incendiary ads about the president’s former pastor forced the presumptive GOP nominee to disavow a sympathizer.
In an era of super PAC geysers, cable coverage, irritable bloggers, and hyper-partisanship, presidential candidates find themselves overwhelmed by distractions. So imagine how difficult it has become for candidates further down the ticket to control their messages. At a time when every ill-advised comment is caught on a tracker’s camera, or when a super PAC can spend more on an advertising buy than a campaign’s entire budget, the best-laid campaign plans can be scuttled in an instant.
This year, congressional candidates running in some of the most competitive states face the prospect of another last-minute headache: The proliferation of outside groups that are spending on TV ads means candidates who wait too long to buy time could find themselves priced out of the market. After all, there are only so many slots available in every 24 hours of programming. Take away the undesirable commercial time available—say, at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday—and there are fewer desirable spots.
“The way campaigns are waged fundamentally changed in 2010 [with] the amount of outside money and undisclosed money driving the dialogue and driving out the candidates,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist handling several House campaigns this year. “Unfortunately, candidates are not in control of their own message as much as they used to be. Reserving time is a way for candidates to take back their voice, even if theirs isn’t the only voice out there.”
Smart strategists have already adapted to get their message across late in the political season. Candidates and party committees have reserved millions in ad time during September and October, locking in low rates well before the market is flooded with requests.
Reps. Joe Heck, R-Nev., Tom Latham, R-Iowa, Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, and Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, have already purchased or reserved ad space for later in the campaign, anticipating tough fights. Nevada Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, who is running against Heck, has reserved $760,000 in ads set to begin on Oct. 2. Venture capitalist Paul Hirschbiel, a Democrat running in Virginia’s 2nd District, has bought nearly 10,000 gross ratings points in the Norfolk market between Sept. 4 and Election Day.
All six are running in swing states that could decide the White House and—in Nevada, Virginia, and Ohio—control of the Senate. That means Obama’s team, Romney’s team, and their attendant super PACs and party committees battling over Senate seats will all want a piece of those advertising markets.
“In a world of super PACs and third-party spending, getting out in front early to lock in quality time is important,” Heck consultant Ryan Erwin said. Getting in early, he said, “is the difference between network news and Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns. No offense to Buffy, but as you target demographics and put together a strategic placement that makes sense for the voters you’re trying to reach, you’ve got a limited opportunity to reach them.”
“Inventory is going to get scarce real quick,” said Lapp, Oceguera’s consultant. “If you wait too long, you’ll be trapped on the Cartoon Network.” Scarcity is even becoming an issue in non-presidential battleground states. In Montana, both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have reserved more than $3 million in advertising time. Montana strategists say there will be about 29,000 gross ratings points—the measure of a given spot’s penetration into the viewing audience—available between Labor Day and Election Day. Combined, the NRSC and DSCC have purchased more than half the available time, before Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg have had a chance to buy post-Labor Day advertising.
Candidates won’t be entirely shut out. The rules that govern political ads require stations to give candidates access to the airwaves at the lowest available rate. That means candidate cash will be more valuable than outside money; Tester and Rehberg can use their money, raised under hard limits, to buy ads at a cheaper rate than party committees.
In pricier markets, demand forces prices to skyrocket. Those outside groups could end up buying a single television spot for several times what it costs a candidate to buy the same time. The temptation, in the super PAC era, is to dismiss minor differences in candidate fundraising as negligible. But candidate money really does matter—almost as much as how those candidates spend their cash.
This article appears in the May 24, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.