Political Animal


May 08, 2012 8:59 AM A Better Investment

By Ed Kilgore

Progressives who look with horror at the hundreds of millions of dollars that right-wing Super-PACs are planning to spend on attack ads during the general election have been wondering: “Where’s the cavalry?” Where’s the countervailing money from the rich people on the other side of the barricades, such as they are?

The partial answer, according to Nick Confessore of The New York Times, is that progressive money is mostly going into election infrastructure rather than advertising war chests.

“The idea that we’re going to engage in an arms race on advertising with the Republicans is not appealing to many liberal donors,” said David Brock, the founder of American Bridge 21st Century.
The advertising-oriented Democratic super PACs, including Priorities USA and two groups founded to back Democrats in Congress, remain on the list of organizations that the Democracy Alliance recommends to its members. Robert McKay, who is the chairman of the Democracy Alliance and sits on the board of Priorities USA, said the $100 million expected to be spent this year by alliance members would include some money for election ads, but would most likely favor grass-roots organizing and research groups.
“There is a bias towards funding infrastructure as it relates to the elections,” Mr. McKay said. “That means get-out-the-vote efforts” directed toward young voters, single women, black voters and Latinos, he said.

Even where paid broadcast media is an important line-item expenditure for independent progressive groups, it’s likely to be subordinate to grassroots GOTV efforts, it seems:

Some groups will pay for both advertising and organizing. PAC+, a super PAC founded by the San Francisco philanthropist Steve Phillips, a member of the Democracy Alliance, expects to spend about $10 million on Latino voters in six states, with a heavy emphasis on Arizona, which the Obama campaign is seeking to turn into a battleground. Half of PAC+ spending will go to enrollment and half to advertising.
“You can dump 10 or 20 million in TV ads in Ohio and try to reach the persuadable swing voters there, or you can up voter turnout among Latinos in Colorado and Arizona and win that way,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s much cheaper.”

You get the feeling reading Confessore’s piece that some progressives with money to invest simply think of massive ad spending as “enemy turf,” where it’s impossible to compete effectively, or as morally suspect. Others may figure it’s the job of the Obama campaign or the national party committees.

But it’s also worth noting that the consensus of political scientists for some time has been that paid broadcast advertising in presidential general elections is vastly overrated. (Read this John Sides piece that covers some of the reasons why that might be the case). Yes, it’s extremely dangerous to let the other side completely dominate paid ads, and perhaps more importantly, they can be very effective in down-ballot races where the candidates are not as well known. But dollar-for-dollar, particularly in a close election, it probably makes more sense for the marginal expenditure to go into election infrastructure efforts that will pay off for multiple candidates.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • DAY on May 08, 2012 9:18 AM:

    "The Media" desperately needs a horse race. But it isn't- look at the Republicans who opted OUT of the race this year.

    Better to spend money down ticket, get Representatives and Senators into office who can make a difference. I say with some confidence that the filibuster will not go away.

  • Snow on May 08, 2012 9:24 AM:

    I think this is a brilliant strategy by the Democrats. The Republicans are still living in a three-channel world, despite the devotion to Fox News and Rush, where to dominate the airwaves means that you control the conversation. But marketing is all about community nowadays, personally reaching out and engaging with the people you want to influence and letting them influence you. Why badger people into going to the polls out of fear and hate when you could personally convince them to go to the polls out of desire? But that's the difference between Dems and Reps. Dems want everyone to be part of the process. Reps want people to obey orders.

    Here's a great illustratio of this. Do you remember the rumor in 2008 that Obama would sponsor a car at a NASCAR race? There was a huge response, and I was totally disappointed it wasn't true. But now it will happen: the "Powered by the People" stock car to support the convention. I don't know if it'll actually race, but in race-made Charlotte it'll be a powerful image, a car covered with peoples' names like Maya Lin's wall instead of faceless corporate logos.


  • g on May 08, 2012 9:26 AM:

    I'm wondering how effective advertising really is. I don't imagine my family is typical, but for us, it doesn't touch us at all. We don't watch the shows that ads appear on. We toss the crap that comes into our mailbox right in the recycling bin. The only time I see political ads is online when it's part of a story going "tut-tut-tut, look how awful."

    And if I did see an ad on TV, I'd probably fast-forward through it on Tevo, or use the time it's on to go to the kitchen.

    Do people really pay attention to political ads?

  • boatboy_srq on May 08, 2012 9:26 AM:

    I'm continually amused that all the GOP talk about how our Galtian Masters will break open their coffers to create more jobs and more productivity once their unbearable tax burdens are lightened yields, as the best investment they seem able to provide in that direction, little more than talking heads and copy writers.

    If bull###t were a valuable commodity, the Right would be turning the US into a net exporter of some significance.

    Captcha: disgrace uotiat. So true.

  • schtick on May 08, 2012 9:27 AM:

    The closer to the elections, the more the ads and the more people get sick of them. When every commercial break has the same ad, all day, almost every day, it's a big annoyance. Some people, like me, are amazed they dump all that money for lies when they should be paying taxes for that amount, but don't. If they can afford millions in ads, they should be taxed.

  • bleh on May 08, 2012 9:27 AM:

    Concur with Day that there will be a lot of "free media" in the mix that will at least dilute right-wing attempts to buy the election.

    but let's also remember: the parties are NOT equal when it comes to optimal allocation of money. If progressives get interested -- an admittedly higher bar than getting the Brownshirts in line -- then we vastly outnumber them. The Right may yell and scream very loudly, but there aren't all that many of them when it comes to "boots on the ground" -- at least not FREE ones. That means that, for us, the "bang for the buck" on GOTV and other organizing efforts is a lot higher than for the Right, who basically have to pay for everything. So for them, the marginal costs of organization are higher than for us, and thus the optimal allocation of money is higher for paid media.

  • Steve on May 08, 2012 9:39 AM:

    Paid advertising might be effective in branding Romney at this stage since the voters are still trying to figure out who he is. By contrast, so many people have strong opinions regarding the President that it's hard to see how a commercial could sway things either way.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 08, 2012 9:55 AM:

    I think I've just given up. Dems have effectively ceded and Republicans will take us back to the Gilded Age.

    Unbelievable considering in 2009 Dems and Obama could have extincted the Republicans.

    I need to vomit.

  • c u n d gulag on May 08, 2012 10:10 AM:

    Here'a an ad I'd like to see (well, of course I would - I wrote it!).

    The video would all be of pastoral settings - the ocean, rivers, streams, meadows, mountains - with friendly woodland creatures, and fish.

    And the voice-over saying:
    'Sick of Republicans politicians and their endless political commercials?
    The ones with scary looking people, and even scarier music?
    And them telling you how patriotic, religious, and economically smart they are? (Insert picture and sound of a Mynah-bird laughing).

    Are you sick of them claiming our Constitution, and our flag, as their own?

    Sick of them telling you to be scared?

    The only known antidote to fear, is to vote for Democrats. (Insert a snippet of FDR's "Nothing to fear..." speech here).

    Most of us CAN get along.
    Kick the one's who can't, or won't, out of office.

    Vote DemocratIC!'

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on May 08, 2012 10:31 AM:

    Wise decision, on the part of the Dems, to focus on "get-out-the-vote" efforts. What with all the new voter ID laws and such, getting target voters ready to rock the vote come November will be crucial, I think. Sure, you can run ads telling people to go out and vote, but if they don't have access to the voting infrastructure, it'll be like pissing in the wind...

    Even the Republicans know that despite all the bally-hoo in polls with registered voters, the only numbers that really matter are the "likely voters", which tends towards the Right...

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 08, 2012 10:35 AM:

    @Sgt 10:31 am:

    So the voter ID laws worked by a) reducing the number of people who can vote, and b) effectively reducing the Dems' advertising budget.

    Great. Just great.

  • stinger on May 08, 2012 10:47 AM:

    gulag: I like it. A lot.

    captcha: encouraging

  • rrk1 on May 08, 2012 10:57 AM:

    Given the aggressive tactics the Rethugs are using to suppress the vote, the Dems are smart to focus on GOTV efforts. After witnessing what happened in Columbus Ohio in 2004, and the stolen election in 2000 (also 2004) a broad-based campaign to clean up our election process should really be a national priority. But the business of elections is obviously more important than their integrity.

    The media not only want a horse race, but a full-fledged three-ring circus to provide it with enough entertainment and distracting trivia to serve up as an election process. Issues are too boring, and require a brain to analyze. So minute-to-minute nonsense coverage of irrelevant faux pas, winks, belches, farts, and wardrobe malfunctions is what we're supposed to use to decide our choices.

  • zandru on May 08, 2012 11:10 AM:

    Great Ad, Mr. Gulag!

    Throw in a few kittens (or even a few bear cubs or wolf puppies, in keeping with the woodland theme) and your ad would be irresistible.

    I also concur with the GOTV efforts of the left. Way back in the day, when most folks thought that government could be a GOOD thing, the unions performed a great function in informing their members (and their members' families) about the issues involved, their stake in it, consequences of letting "the other guys" get into office, and providing reminders and even rides to the polls. Paul Krugman, in his book The Conscience of a Liberal, observed that the labor class had historically not participated much in politics, up until the rise of union power in the 20th century. At that time, the Democratic Party was strongly pro-union and thus, its main beneficiary.

    Similar people-to-people contacts which are taking place these days in other ways may be able to serve a similar function. I'd like to see a resurgence of labor and professional organizations, too.

    As long as we still count the votes, getting people on your side TO VOTE is the bottom line. All the rest is just noise.

  • Keith Roberts on May 08, 2012 11:23 AM:

    Let's hope our billionaires are smarter than theirs. Still, advertising has this advantage: it can lie, and repeat it so often that even just subliminally people come to believe it.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on May 08, 2012 11:42 AM:

    @Keith 11:23 am
    And that is why the Republicans are going to win.

    It's amazing to consider that the Dems are correct on every issue as to the moral and practical benefit for the future of the country, but they're so spineless, so ineffectual, so clueless about how to touch people or educate them that they are going to lose and the Republicans are going to take us to a darker age.

    The writing's on the wall.

  • Peter C on May 08, 2012 11:51 AM:

    It's time to push a simple message: Political Ads are Lies.

  • CharlieM on May 08, 2012 12:02 PM:

    Sure, GOTV is important. Especially with the recent Repub efforts in suppression via photo ID laws.
    But it's a mistake to be dismissive regarding political ads.

    If you think they don't work, then we need to revise the recent history that says "the guy nobody likes" buy his way (with advertising) to the Repub nomination.
    Isn't that the conventional wisdom? That Santorum lost a lot of states because he got buried beneath the avalanche of Romney ads?

  • Anonymous on May 08, 2012 5:25 PM:

    I like it too Gulag and keep hoping the Obama campaign reads this blog and comments. Get out the votes is vital and Dems are far better organized at that. I continue to believe that Obama should run against governors in many states (Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and probably others). Wisconsin could be a bellweather in June election, surely no one has spent more money on negative advertising than Scott Walker.

    OFA .......Read and consider Cund Gulag suggestion, PLEASE!