Politics suffers when news readers don’t count

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By Stephen Key

Some random items have coalesced in my brain to create an aggravating thought.

Item 1: I’ve often heard that newspaper advertising doesn’t move the polling-numbers needle. Newspaper readers already have made up their mind before the waning days of an election. That’s why candidates primarily use television and radio.

Item 2: When HSPA learned that the Indiana Tobacco Prevention & Cessation Agency recently had received funds to be used to encourage people to quit smoking, it dispatched Pamela Lego, Midwest Advertising Placements ad director, to discuss how newspapers could fit into the advertising mix.

Lego was told that newspaper readers don’t fit the demographic they were trying to reach. Readers are higher educated and have higher incomes than those the agency was trying to reach. (Never thought a readership that was more educated and better off financially would work against us.)

Item 3: Then I read in my local newspaper how many millions of dollars were spent in Indiana by candidates for Indiana’s senatorial and congressional seats up for election in 2010. Very little of that amount was spent by the candidates on advertisements in state newspapers.

Item 4: The final piece was the story on departing Sen. Evan Bayh’s farewell speech on the Senate floor. The focus of the speech was the need for a less partisan atmosphere in Congress.

Aggravating thought

Taking these random events together, my reaction to Bayh’s plea for less partisan polarization and greater across-the-aisle cooperation was: What do you expect to happen under the current political election strategy?

To win an election, a candidate spends the bulk of his contributions buying television and radio time to run commercials designed to move the needle in his or her favor.

Since newspaper readers have already made up their minds, this huge financial effort is made to reach undecided voters who are less educated and less well-off financially.

With 30 seconds or less to a commercial, any argument to sway these remaining voters must be simplistic. That limitation leads to attack ads on the opposition. It’s a lot easier to call the opponent a socialist or rich fat-cat than outline a position on health care reform, banking oversight or economic development in those precious seconds.

The survivors of such a caustic ritual go to Washington, D.C., aligned with other survivors who call themselves either Republicans or Democrats. These survivors recall how they were portrayed by the opposing party, which often dump cash on nationally produced commercials into an election if it appears winnable for their side.

Where’s the incentive to reach across the aisle? Who can you trust from the party that helped trash your public image during the election with those TV, radio and direct-mail attack ads?

It would make more sense for a candidate to spend more advertising dollars early in newspapers with a positive message outlining his or her goals, beliefs and specific proposals to deal with national problems.

If you’re worried about the needle, set it farther to your side earlier in the process. Let those high-educated, more financially secure readers exert their influence over those with less favorable demographics.

Newspaper readers often set the tone of local political discussions and are more apt to influence those voters that candidates now spend millions and millions of dollars to reach at the end of the campaign.

But political strategists don’t want to risk stepping outside the box. It’s easier to try to out-demonize your opponent.

Stephen Key is executive director and general counsel of HSPA. Contact him at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.

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