Just as Christmas advertising has spilled into the pre-Thanksgiving period, Halloween displays creep into stores by August, and Easter candy hits shelves before Valentine's Day chocolates get some time to themselves, the folks who sell political candidates are pushing their products earlier than ever.
Already, red-state viewers have seen a significant number of TV ads from endangered Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, and Mary Landrieu, none of whom have primary challenges on the horizon. Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, running for the Senate in Michigan, started at the end of March. Michelle Nunn, the presumptive Democratic nominee for Georgia's open Senate seat, just joined them on the airwaves. "Compared to 2010, it is very early for candidates to be on the air to such a degree by this point," said Elizabeth Wilner, the senior vice president of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell beat them all off the starting line early last year, before he had an opponent from either party. Faced with low popularity ratings and needling from Democratic agitators, but blessed with abundant cash reserves, the Kentuckian's reelection campaign started airing TV ads in March 2013, more than a year before the Republican primary and 601 days before Election Day. Some featured McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, speaking of his love for his state, while others intoned against McConnell's favored adversary, President Obama.
The explosion of spending by political nonprofits, super PACs, and other outside groups in recent elections reached cacophonous levels by the final weeks, leaving some strategists thinking they would be better off putting some of that money to use at earlier, nontraditional points on the calendar. As a result, outside political advertising in 2013 and early 2014 was more intense than ever, led by the conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity's millions. AFP's ad binge, in particular, forced Democratic campaigns to make an early judgment that there was no point in conserving resources the traditional way.
"A few cycles ago, some important people in Washington realized that a lot of these races were over by the time Democrats put their first ad up," said Ben Chao, a Democratic ad-maker. "Voters are paying attention much earlier than ever, and, more importantly, they're making up their minds much earlier."
That was the situation Pryor's campaign faced in Arkansas when he was the unlucky target of the first attack ads of 2014—in February 2013. The Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund directed more than $500,000 worth of TV and direct-mail attacks at Pryor in the winter and spring. With the unanswered attacks starting to bruise, Pryor's campaign joined his foes on TV with ads touting his moderate and populist bona fides, along with some hitting his lesser-known future Republican opponent, freshman Rep. Tom Cotton.
Pryor still faces a deathly difficult autumn race in a state Mitt Romney carried by 23 percentage points in 2012. But he hasn't lost yet, something that looked like a real possibility to people watching the race in its early days. As The Cook Political Report wrote in March, "Rumors of his demise might be premature."
"We feel our early ads and efforts to educate folks about Congressman Cotton's record went a long way toward making sure this race continues to be competitive," a Pryor spokesman said.
But engaging in advertising to influence that decision-making is expensive, and the costs are more difficult for campaigns to recoup than they are for outside groups that can raise a million dollars with a single check. As third parties such as Americans for Prosperity spend to spread their message, they have also squeezed their opponents financially. In comments to donors and the press, Senate Democrats have clamored for more money as the outside spending against them climbed.
"Americans for Prosperity has been very crafty," Wilner said. "They're forcing a number of Democratic incumbents on the air before they want to. Money is not an issue for AFP, but for every incumbent they force on the air, it is an issue."
Senate Democrats' hefty campaign accounts should be a source of strength. But the glut of early advertising—and the rest of the quick-start campaigning that those TV ads represent—has produced some drag on that front. Begich's April fundraising disclosure revealed that he had already spent all the money he raised in the first three months of 2014. The $3 million Pryor's campaign had already spent by the end of 2013 allowed his opponent to pull closer to him, in financial terms, than most other Republican challengers at this stage.
That's why candidate advertising has been mostly targeted at this early stage, rather than unleashed at saturation levels. Pryor's campaign points out that after its early advertising spree in the middle of last year, the incumbent has largely stayed off the airwaves. His strategists felt comfortable that the basic message they had already introduced on TV was still resonating with voters, even as his outside-group antagonists remained active. Democrats point to Arkansas as evidence that they've been able to keep up—barely—in this earlier-than-ever bid for voters' approval.
"Businesses need to cater to their customers," Chao said. "We need to cater to the way voters are making their decisions."
This article appears in the April 12, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Early Times.