Thomas Fitzgerald: All pain, no gain?

Senate candidate Tom Smith , onthe other hand, has seen ads boost his name recognition. MATT ROURKE / AP
Senate candidate Tom Smith , onthe other hand, has seen ads boost his name recognition. MATT ROURKE / AP

It appears all those presidential campaign ads change very few minds.

Posted: November 05, 2012

Spend any length of time with people in the nine presidential battleground states, and almost all of them will at some point tell you how much they have come to hate the targeted assault of 30-second political TV ads.

They'll describe their own defensive tactics: clicking the mute button; recording a show on the DVR to watch it later, fast-forwarding through commercials; running from the living room.

Ultimately, though, escape may be impossible - short of crawling into a fallout bunker.

In the Cleveland television market, 3,668 presidential campaign TV spots aired during the week of Oct. 22-29, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. In the three weeks before that, Cleveland-area TV watchers were exposed to 7,916 ads.

So it was that Abigael Evans, 4, spoke for many last week when she wailed that she was "tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romeney." A YouTube video of the little girl from Fort Collins, Colo. - like Cleveland, a saturated TV market in a swing state - went viral.

It turns out that, not only are presidential ads virtually unavoidable, but they may not be all that effective.

"Nobody has any evidence that ads make a difference in a presidential campaign," said Diana C. Mutz, a professor of political science and communications at the University of Pennsylvania who recently wrote a paper for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences arguing that the power of ads is overrated.

"It's just not a cost-effective way to reach persuadable voters, with very little bang for the buck," she said in an interview. "You might as well just identify the undecided voters and buy them each a house."

Research shows that partisan leanings predict the behavior of as many as 80 percent of voters in a presidential campaign, with most knowing how they'll vote before the general election ever gets going, Mutz said. Political advertising appears to be most influential in down-ballot races for more obscure offices, where name identification alone can produce votes.

Consider that previously unknown businessman Tom Smith, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, has been able to draw close to incumbent Sen. Bob Casey by investing just under $17 million of his own money in the race, most of it for ads.

TV can also sway races when one candidate's ad budget swamps an opponent's. Yet in the presidential race, the campaigns are "equally matched, so the net effect is nothing," Mutz said. "You have a stalemate. It's a massive waste of money."

Ken Goldstein, the president of the ad-tracking firm Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, agrees that the cost of advertising in the presidential race is disproportionate to its likely impact.

It's just that no campaign strategist wants to take a chance.

"You have tremendous numbers of ads chasing very, very few [undecided] eyes," Goldstein said recently on NPR's Morning Edition. "These campaigns aren't worrying about efficiency. These campaigns are worrying about Al Gore. All of this stuff matters at the margin. Ask Al Gore if the margin matters."

Former Vice President Gore, of course, was the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee who lost Florida by 537 votes after the U.S. Supreme Court halted the state's recount. As a result, he lost the presidency to George W. Bush.

This year, Rep. Jim Renacci (R., Ohio) decided to take the risk.

Thanks to redistricting, Renacci is running against another incumbent, Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton, in a suburban district outside Cleveland. On Oct. 23, Renacci canceled $850,000 worth of airtime he had reserved on Cleveland broadcast TV stations for ads to air through Election Day.

To say the least, the move raised eyebrows. Such things just aren't done in politics, where the rule is: Spend it if you've got it.

Some Democrats say that's why Romney's forces just put millions of dollars into TV ads in Pennsylvania - because they can afford it. With polls giving President Obama a narrow lead here, why not see if a late ad blitz can turn a blue state red?

Ohio's Renacci reasoned, however, that there was just too much noise and visual clutter from the presidential race, a tight U.S. Senate race, and every other campaign that has been filling up Cleveland TV screens with ads.

"People are not paying attention," Renacci said. "They are just turning it off."

On Nov. 6, even as you're waiting to see who wins the White House, you might want to take a look at returns in Ohio's 16th Congressional District. Wonder how Renacci's risk will turn out?


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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