TV still triumphs

I’ve written many times about how new technology is changing the way candidates and advocacy groups communicate with voters. There is no doubt that the Internet, wireless and other digital communication platforms are having a major influence on the way campaigns are run. But several developments this week make clear that the 800-pound gorilla in politics is still television.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has become a real contender in the race for the Republican presidential nomination by spending some $4 million on television advertising in the early-caucus and -primary states. New poll results show Romney leading the field in New Hampshire and Iowa, where he has been running television advertising since February. The campaign’s decision to “introduce” Romney to voters in those states with television was viewed by many as a waste of money. But it has worked. “It’s gotten us to the starting line with other candidates.” Romney’s chief media strategist, Alex Castellanos, is quoted as saying by The Washington Post. Castellanos, who understands media and messaging as well as any Republican consultant in the country, adds, “When you put Mitt Romney on TV, good things happen.”

Now Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is using the same tactic in Iowa. The Obama campaign had been focused primarily on grass roots in the state but has now moved into a more aggressive mass-media phase. Now it is on the air with a pair of television spots using a documentary style to tell voters about Obama’s career before he became a political celebrity. One features two former colleagues from the Illinois Senate, a Republican and a Democrat, who testify to Obama’s ability to work across party lines to get things done. The other portrays the senator as “… someone who could have written his ticket on Wall Street …” but chose to become a community organizer, working long hours for low pay. The ads are a smart way to provide some context and history for a candidate who is less well known to voters than his competitors, and only television can really deliver those messages.

And a few days ago the Supremes weighed in. With a 5-4 split decision the Supreme Court not only rolled back campaign finance regulation, they virtually guaranteed that the 2008 elections will still be driven by television. Advocacy campaigns funded by special interests, whether corporate, labor or cultural, have been influencing presidential and congressional campaigns for over 20 years. Back in 1988 AARP began advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire to force candidates to deal with the organization’s issues. My firm ran ads in the early states throughout the 1990s urging voters to “ask the candidates” about our clients’ issues, then organized grassroots troops to do just that in public forums. In small, relatively inexpensive media markets, television was a powerful tool to get issues on the national agenda.

The technique grew and was expanded with the use of “soft money” to run ads that implicitly favored candidates in congressional and U.S. Senate election campaigns. It was just this “soft money” that the 2002 McCain-Feingold law sought to regulate by forbidding corporations and unions from contributing to parties or political action committees. Wisconsin Right to Life deliberately violated one provision of that law, the restriction on running television ads in the weeks immediately before an election, just to take it to the Supreme Court, where it won a major victory this week.

While I do not support the views of Wisconsin Right to Life (in fact I disagree strongly with them on their most important issues), I do support their argument. I find myself in agreement with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. that “Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.”

The outcome of the Court’s ruling will be a resurgence of advocacy advertising on television. I acknowledge my self-interest in the subject, but I don’t think that is a bad thing. People who have a point of view will always find some way to express it. Should we be limiting the ability to communicate online, in the mail, with telephones or even person-to-person? Everyone would see that as an onerous restriction on free speech. Television advertising is no different. It is a powerful way to communicate, as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama understand. Television is still the most “small-d” democratic way to communicate with voters. Sure it can get expensive. But free speech isn’t always free.


Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com.