We're less than a week into 2014, but you wouldn't know it from the glut of early campaign activity. This week has already brought new TV ads from Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse (R), Arkansas gubnernatorial hopeful Mike Ross (D) and would-be New York Rep. George Demos (R).
-- Stuart Rothenberg writes Tuesday that these early TV ads are nothing new, citing an article he authored in 1986 documenting ad buys in the preliminary stages of that year's midterm elections. Unsurprisingly, Rothenberg finds little correlation between spending early and winning. Some losing candidates hit the airwaves early -- Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-FL) -- and lost anyway. Others -- Bob Graham (D-FL) and then-Democrat Richard Shelby (AL) -- spent early and won.
-- The common thread here is party affiliation. President Obama's approval ratings start the year hovering near record-lows. And, as Charlie Cook writes, the "6-Year Itch" theory isn't lacking for historical evidence. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), like Hawkins 28 years ago, is both his party's most vulnerable incumbent seeking reelection and the most aggressive incumbent on the air so far. And the half-dozen TV ads Pryor has run thus far are a testament to his vulnerability, not just testing a tactic.
-- Early ads can have some limited impact. A study of early-2012 TV advertising in the presidential race found the effects were very temporary and usually canceled out by the other side. But in midterm races, when polls are infrequent, and your opponent might not be on the air yet, capturing a snapshot of public opinion immediately after a new ad can help with fundraising and other perception-driven goals. And with the proliferation of outside-group ad spending -- like the Club for Growth in Pryor's case -- candidates and other groups sometimes need to go up earlier just to fight to a draw.
Rothenberg is right that the ads ultimately don't matter as much as the fundamentals of the race: party cues and perception of the president. But with money flooding candidates and outside groups alike, combined with the diffusion of Americans' media usage, early paid advertising isn't going anywhere.