Campaign costs will keep rising

A few election cycles back, I was asked to be an expert witness in a case challenging one state’s campaign finance regulations. The other side in the case was pushing the whole “campaign spending is out of control” agenda, highlighting the year-on-year increases in political expenditures, along with some references to TV spots as the work of the devil. The judge looked mildly impressed. During my time in the dock, I offered a different perspective, one that focused on the exponentially increasing difficulty and expense of getting the attention of voters, demonstrating that despite the escalating cost of TV ads, those messages are being seen by fewer and fewer eyes. I concluded with a passionate plea for a more knowledgeable electorate that should be informed by even more ads in all media. “Shall we put a cap on voter acquaintance with candidates and issues?” I asked rhetorically. I knew I had made progress when lawyers for the other side cut short their cross-examination. They were hearing something about campaigning that they hadn’t thought of.

That victorious romp came to mind again as I read the latest Pew Research Center report on the public’s attentiveness to this year’s campaigns. Good stuff. Highly recommended. And highly frustrating. The channels of communications with voters are more becoming fragmented than ever. And even some of the movement toward consolidation that online sources once promised seems to have slowed. You should read the entire report to see what campaigners are up against, but let’s recap some highlights, particularly those that might challenge some conventional wisdom and prevailing myths about campaign communications.

First, all campaign news sources are used less this time around than in 2004 or 2008, except for the Internet, which experienced a slight rise, though at a smaller rate of increase than in past cycles. Second, despite a fascinating race on the GOP side, fewer than 4 in 10 Republicans are following the campaigns closely. Democrats were more interested in their 2008 Obama-Clinton contest than 2012 Republicans are interested in our current multicandidate affair. Third, if paying attention signals anything, younger voters are not readying to “rock the vote,” either because they are more likely to be Democrats who are bored by the Republican contest or they are just normal young people bored with anything that’s not a little rock ‘n’ roll. Fourth, despite the fact that soccer moms have overrun Facebook, it and other social media have not made their move in the 2012 campaigns, dampening expectations that the “new media” like Twitter are radically reshaping the political landscape. TV still trumps the Internet for campaign news for all age cohorts, even young and cool people.

Fifth, Fox News is not as imperious as some thought it might be this time out, even in GOP circles. The loathed (by some) CNN and “mainstream media,” old-line networks of ABC, CBS and NBC collectively command a larger mindshare among Republicans than does Roger Ailes’s operation. Who’d’ve thought? Sixth, almost as many Democrats as Republicans have been watching the Republican debates, though fewer than half of the voters in either party confessed to looking in. Seventh (and not at all lucky for most of us), robo-calls have been our second most significant paid source of campaign messages. For example, 28 percent of Republicans have received a recorded call while just 23 percent got mail, 14 percent received email, 15 percent followed a candidate website and merely 5 percent tracked the campaign on Facebook or Twitter. 

The big picture, though, is not that TV is fading or that the Internet is creeping up. It’s that nothing in particular is cutting through the fog. Campaigning successfully is just going to keep getting more expensive because nothing works especially well, despite rising costs.

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