This year, there are more TV commercials for presidential candidates than ever before. There you are, in the middle of watching "Who Wants to Marry My Step-Grandmother?" and all of a sudden, you get a message from John Kerry saying, "Hope is on the way." Or President Bush might pop up and tell you to "stay the course" while you're watching "Good Cops Who Go Bad." Not surprisingly, both political campaigns use the Nielsen ratings and other market research to help them target which shows to advertise on. What does surprise me is that both campaigns seem to be targeting the exact opposite audiences that I think they should be wooing.
Mr. Bush's pollsters tell him that he's weak among women and African American voters. Kerry's experts say he could use some help in rural areas and with conservative urban males. So, what do the campaigns do? Does Kerry buy time on "The Farm Report?" Does the president invest heavily in "The Ellen DeGeneres Show?" No. Kerry buys ads on female talk shows that his constituency is already watching, and Mr. Bush advertises on cop shows that appeal to conservative, urban males who probably would have voted for him anyway. Kerry has run hundreds of ads on shows that have African American stars, but Mr. Bush doesn't even include those shows on his list of the top 100 shows on which he advertises. Both campaigns are "solidifying their base," rather than reaching out to possible new constituents. They're not even bothering to try to change the minds of the people whose minds are hard to change.
We don't need more "preaching to the choir." We get enough of that at the conventions when candidates just have to say, "God Bless America," and the people with the funny hats give them standing ovations.
I know they have to make some decisions about where and how to spend their money, but I think they've gone overboard using their research. Neither candidate seems to be trying very hard to change the color of any of the "red" or "blue" states. Mostly, they're both just hoping to win over the "undecideds." It's like in high school when the pretty girl ignores the nice, loyal, dependable guy because she's attracted to the dangerous, sexy guy. The sexy guy ends up breaking her heart, cheating with her best friend, and stealing her mother's Camaro. Is there a more perfect political metaphor? Ignoring the great majority of us is a big mistake.
For one thing, it's not in the right spirit. Perseverance and bucking the odds are admirable traits and certainly within the American tradition. Fortunately the Colonists didn't have researchers telling them, "The British are overwhelming favorites, so you shouldn't even bother with the revolution. Maybe you should think about fighting the French instead."
If your candidate is having trouble connecting with a certain segment of the population, don't you want him to try harder and harder to convince that group that he is the best man for the job? Shouldn't this be what a political campaign is all about, not just keeping your base happy, and hoping to get a few swing votes?
We all hate being categorized. We don't like "experts" saying that because of our occupation, skin color, or favorite shampoo they definitely know how we'll vote. The candidates should be very careful about this, and should remember that it's just as much of a mistake to assume that they have someone's vote as it is to assume that they can't get someone else's vote. Both candidates should be trying to get all of our votes.
Despite the impeccable logic of this column, I don't expect the campaigns to abandon their Gods of Research and Statistics. However, I think I have a way that we can fight back. We should all just start watching television programs that we normally don't watch. Then, the ads will be reaching the "wrong" target audiences, the campaigns will have wasted their money, and maybe they will reevaluate their approach. So, to do my part, I plan to start watching, "Desperate Housewives," "America's Next Top Model," and "Amish in the City."
Who am I kidding? I could never survive that. And I'll bet those cunning political strategists know it.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.