Early and Often

WASHINGTON - APRIL 26: Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK) talks with reporters after voting on the US Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health And Iraq Accountability Act at the US Capitol April 26, 2007 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 51-46 in favor of the emergency appropriations bill which provides $100 billion the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a non-binding timeline for combat troop withdrawal beginning in October 2007. President George W. Bush has promised to veto the bill. 
National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Jan. 7, 2014, 6:50 a.m.

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.

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