Media to make 2012 expensive

There can be no doubt that 2012 will be the costliest presidential contest ever. It’s not just the horde of Republicans who stand ready to raise and spend money for the chance to take on Barack. No, the driving force behind record campaign costs will be an increasingly fragmented media market that requires more and more spending to successfully disseminate any message.

When today’s campaign finance laws were enacted, limits on spending didn’t impede candidates and their parties from communicating with voters to any significant degree. Yes, limits meant that campaigns couldn’t do much innovative advertising outside mainstream television, but TV was relatively efficient, so there wasn’t much to complain about, really, unless you were selling ads in new or alternative media. But that’s all changed. Broadcast television just isn’t efficiently delivering the eyeballs it once did. Yet the prices have never adjusted to that new reality. It takes more to deliver lees, an anomaly of economics.

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The problem going forward is that the TV audience did not stray in one direction, instead scattering to the winds. A few viewers’ ears have wandered to radio or their eyes to a handful of cable channels, some refocused on weekly newspapers, and of course, a lot have surfed over to the Internet and social media. The patterns of migration are not always the same for all types of voters, making the calculus of media planning for campaigns all the more complex, as well as costly.

For Republicans, the changes bring both opportunities and expensive challenges. During the primary season, the stampede of Republicans to Fox News, talk radio and a handful of conservative blogs make media buyers’ work relatively easy and cost-effective. In fact, placing ads for GOP primaries has probably never been simpler. As the more sophisticated cable operators provide opportunities to home in on specific geographic targets, Fox News will have an even greater stranglehold on the GOP primary market than it does already. The only limitation will be space available. I’d even wager that Republican mail vendors, always big winners during primary season, will finally see their share of GOP primary spending decline.

In the general election, though, things get a little messier. In one survey I recently completed, it turned out less than one-third of all self-described conservative Republican November voters were getting most of their news and information about politics from TV. Almost a quarter rely mostly on print, and another quarter is focused on the Internet. These splits mean that a Republican campaigner can’t deliver the larger, general-election base through TV, as they almost can do in primaries. The good news is that swing voters like independents and conservative Democrats are still hooked on TV, making them an efficient media-buying target.

The surge in voting by younger voters is also likely to be a factor in surging campaign costs. Younger voters in both parties are much more likely than their senior counterparts to get their political news from the Internet. This is especially true for younger Republicans. So campaigners courting the youth (and even young family) votes have to invest much more heavily in websites, banner ads and so forth. Candidates seeking older voters might take a closer look at newspapers in some states. Newspapers have often been ignored in the past by political media buyers, especially when TV was so much more cost-effective. But as TV efficiency has eroded, newspapers look like a useful tool, albeit an expensive one. But it’s all expensive these days. Get used to it.

Democrats face costly challenges, too, in the new media environment. Minorities are still locked into TV, but white liberals are heavily into print and the Internet, eschewing TV more so than just about any slice of the electorate.

Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.