Campaign ads: Who listens?

More than $250 million of political ads have run so far, to uncertain gain.

When John Kerry's campaign promised to go "dark" in August - that is, run no TV ads - to conserve its cash, viewers in key battleground states may have heaved a sigh of relief.

No such luck. The stream of ads touting and trashing both sides has continued unabated, and in some cities, pro-Kerry forces may even be outspending those for President Bush. Senator Kerry's campaign has indeed gone dark, but the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and independent activist groups have filled the breach - most of the time in ways that appear indistinguishable from official campaign ads.

The DNC ad, the first of this election by the party's independent-expenditure wing, which by law cannot coordinate with the Kerry campaign, shows excerpts of Kerry's acceptance speech from the convention and seeks to portray him as a war leader.

The Bush campaign has also launched a new ad, called "Together." It continues the campaign's effort to put forth a more positive message - so no Kerry-bashing - stating that "we're rising to the challenge" of fighting terrorism and growing the economy.

All told, the two campaigns and their allies have spent more than $250 million in ads thus far in an election cycle that features unparalleled intensity, unusually early. And in the end, all this message-mongering sways very few votes.

"Ninety-nine percent of this election is not being decided by TV advertising," says Ken Goldstein, head of a University of Wisconsin project tracking political advertising.

This election is mostly about partisan predisposition, plus events on the ground in Iraq and the direction of the economy, he says. "And so you have an eensy, eensy bit that's going to be decided by the campaign, and some portion of that eensy bit will be decided by political advertising."

First task: preaching to the choir

But on the heels of the 2000 election, which hinged on a 537-vote margin in Florida, neither the campaigns nor their supporters are taking any chances.

In addition, before undecided voters matter, there's the question of getting decided voters to turn out. Bush political adviser Karl Rove speaks often of the 4 million evangelical voters who didn't turn out in the 2000 race; Democrats also point to pockets of "their" voters - for example, single women - who fail to turn out in the millions. So in fact, much of the ad-making consists of red-meat messages aimed at the already-convinced.

"There's a lot of preaching to the choir going on," says Evan Tracey, president of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group. He notes that when the Bush campaign buys ads on national cable shows that cater to sportsmen, auto-racing fans, gun owners, and Fox News junkies, that's money aimed at getting his people to the polls.

Mr. Tracey also sees the new campaign finance system - which squeezed the big "soft money" donations away from the parties and into independent groups, and also doubled the limit on "hard money" donations to candidates and parties - as playing a role in the new ad landscape. That, combined with the burning motivation left from the last presidential election's controversial outcome, has created an explosion of donations and spending.

"There are only so many yard signs and bumper stickers you can buy," says Tracey. "After that, it's TV."

Both campaigns are fighting to portray positive reasons to vote for their man, in contrast to the high volume of negative messages that have spewed forth thus far. The Bush campaign spent much of the spring trying to define Kerry - and drive up his negatives - as polls showed that many Americans claimed not to know much about him. From the pro-Kerry side, the 14 independent groups have driven the anti-Bush negativity parade - in part, because they are not allowed, by law, to advocate in favor of anyone; but nothing prevents them from bashing the other guy.

A possible backlash?

The outside groups are also barred from coordinating at all with the official campaigns, and so when an independent group called Swift Boat Veterans For Truth put out an ad last week claiming that Kerry was lying about his combat experience in Vietnam, Bush ended up avoiding reacting to the substance of the claim altogether, instead decrying the use of soft political money by outside groups.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a friend of Kerry's and a former Vietnam POW, came to Kerry's defense, as did historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a biography of Kerry. If Bush had called for the group to pull its ad, or even commented on its content, he may have been accused of "coordinating" with the group, analysts surmise.

Kerry is in the same position with the actions of the 14 outside groups supporting his candidacy. The risk for both candidates is that viewers don't distinguish between "their" ads and the outside ads, and so they all blend together into one multifaceted message. Some viewers may find an outside message unfair, and that could end up hurting the candidate it's meant to help.

"There is a possibility of a backlash," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio, one of the toss-up states awash in advertising. "That's true not just because it's negative - the public sees all of this as negative - but because it seems unreasonable."

After the Republican convention, which ends Sept. 2, and Labor Day weekend, the traditional start of the campaign homestretch, there will be a sprint to the finish by both candidates. The financial playing field will be even, at least as far as the campaigns themselves are concerned. Each campaign will have its $75 million in federal funds and two months to use it. Kerry already has his, having accepted his party's nomination in Boston, but he is husbanding his resources so he can go head to head against Bush.

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