Let’s explore timing of political ads

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By Steve Key

When it comes to statewide political advertising, newspapers are victims of their own success.

At first blush, one would think newspapers are a natural medium for political advertising.

A publisher told me a comparison of his subscriber list and registered voters in the county revealed that 90 percent of the readers have signed up to vote.

A 2005 American Opinion Research poll found that 54 percent of registered voters in Indiana report they receive the information they need to decide how to vote in state and local elections from newspapers.

TV was the second medium, with 38 percent of voters surveyed saying it was their source of information.

So why do statewide candidates spend millions on broadcast advertising and largely shun newspapers?

It’s because newspapers do such a good job of informing readers what’s happening in their community.

We cover the candidate’s declaration of candidacy. We cover the debates. We tell our readers where candidates are on the issues. We report where incumbents voted in past legislative sessions.

That means newspaper readers are more informed about the candidates than other voters.

For the most part, newspaper readers know which candidates they plan to support early in the election cycle.

While newspaper readers’ choices solidify, political campaigns are in fundraising mode – not advertising mode.

More than one veteran campaign manager has told me that newspaper advertising doesn’t “move the needle.”

It doesn’t change the percentage of voters supporting a candidate because newspaper readers make up their minds early.

Campaign managers love what they call “earned media” – the free publicity given when journalists report on a candidate’s promises or proposed programs. They also will happily accept that newspaper endorsement close to Election Day.

And while they don’t want to spend any money on newspaper advertising, they’re not shy about lifting a quote or headline that makes their candidate look good or the opponent look bad.

So the political system has evolved into huge spending sprees after Labor Day in broadcast to convince the least-informed, least-educated voters that a candidate is a saint and an opponent is a relative of the devil.

Taking things out of context and misrepresenting the opponents’ record are fair game for most campaigns because the last of the undecided voters are the most susceptible to be influenced by negative advertising.

It’s a sickening reality – both from a democratic process and from a newspaper advertising perspective.

The way I can see for newspapers to break the cycle is to convince campaign managers to invest in candidate branding with newspapers earlier in the election cycle.

If they would spend some money with newspapers earlier, they could “move the needle” with those voters who come to a decision earlier and then solidify that position. The effort would be to brand their candidate in a positive light.

The campaign’s benefit is that they start out with a higher initial percentage of supporters – people they can identify for campaign contributions earlier in the cycle.

For a smaller amount of money, I believe an early newspaper campaign could improve candidates’ polling numbers prior to Labor Day and improve the ability to identify potential contributors and volunteers.

Isn’t there a value to starting a campaign with 45 percent polling in your favor, rather than 40 percent or 35 percent?

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.