$90 Million Down The Drain?

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Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

Former Democratic National Committee Chair Larry O'Brien used to say that half the money spent in politics was wasted but the problem was you could never tell which half. Modern campaigns – and especially modern consultants – have an almost mystical belief in the power of TV advertising. The 2004 campaign is seeing unprecedented spending on TV ads and some of the old assumptions are being tested, as Dick Cheney might say, "big time."

Over $90 million has been spent on presidential campaign ads in the past seven weeks – most of it in just 18 of the 50 states – and the horserace is just about where it was when the ads began. The Bush-Cheney campaign has spent $50 million on 35,000 ads, while the Kerry campaign has spent $12 million on 12,000 ads. But other Democratic groups – the Media Fund, MoveOn.org and the AFL-CIO – have thrown another $28 million into the pot.

Both sides have decided to scale back, at least for a week. But they have every intention of coming back over and over again. Since both Kerry and Bush have opted out of the public financing system, neither campaign is constrained by spending limits; the only limits are how much money they can raise and how much time is for sale in the 18 battleground states.

At the end of last week, I spoke to six pollsters and strategists involved on both sides of the ad wars, and a consensus as to what impact – or non-impact – these ads have had has emerged:

  • 1. The main point of agreement is that news events and coverage trump ads in a presidential race. In the past few weeks, the only ads that have been effective were those that were amplified in the news media and shaped the campaign dialogue. When the news of Iraq and the 9/11 commission dominated the other ads seemed irrelevant and out of context. This is probably why the Bush campaign pulled everything but its spot attacking Kerry over funding for Iraq, analysts say.
  • 2. The Bush ads: Bush strategist Matthew Dowd told reporters last week that the advertising has in fact moved the race from a 5-point Kerry lead to parity and that polls have shown that negative appraisals of Kerry have risen. However, polls in the last few weeks show Kerry creeping back up. But much of that movement, the experts agree, has to do with the heavy coverage of the war in Iraq and the 9/11 commission rather than with Bush's attacks on Kerry for flip-flopping or Democratic ads attacking Bush.

    "Given the horrible month the president has had, it's plausible that the only thing that has kept him from tanking has been the ads," a Republican pollster told me.

    All the Republicans, as well as some of the Democrats, believe that the first few weeks of Bush's anti-Kerry ads did have impact. A Democratic strategist conceded that they brought Kerry's vulnerability flip-flopping, which has haunted him since his Iraq vote, back into the dialogue and gave ammo to the GOP base that Kerry was a tax-and-spend Democrat. A GOP consultant said, "The first 25 million worked because they needed to bring Republican base's intensity up and the ads were re-enforced by the news coverage which picked up on those themes." His Democratic counterpart agreed but added, "Did they need to spend $25 million to tell Republicans that John Kerry was a Democrat. I don't think so."

  • 3. The Democratic Ads: The impact of these also seems to be a wash right now. . The Kerry campaign worries that the Move-On ads, which have jazzed the Democratic base, may be so highly personal and partisan that they could turn off swing voters. Most believe the anti-Bush Media Fund ads have helped marginally reinforce the president's negatives but don't seem to have moved many voters toward Kerry.

    Democrats say what is really crucial for their side is positive information about John Kerry. Kerry is "the new kid on the block" and they say voters are interested in learning more about who he is and what he stands for. The Bush attempt to "define Kerry" has put some of Kerry's negatives in play and the Kerry folks believe they need to use the paid ads to correct the flip-flopper problem.

    "The good news is that we can fix it (Kerry's blooper on voting both for and against the $87 billion.) The bad news is that it will take $10 million," a Democratic strategist said, adding as an afterthought, "Of course the good news is that we're raising it."

    The Kerry campaign was about to start a big positive campaign this week but they say they learned a lesson from the Bushies and have put it off while the media is full of the Woodward book and the administration's decisions about Iraq. "We have time … The public is interested in finding out more about John Kerry," a Kerry strategist said. "And it's up to us. We have a story to tell and if we can use the ads to tell that story, and the campaign can re-enforce it, we'll be OK. If not, well..."

    From what we've seen so far, it looks like it's timing, more than time, that will really make the difference. .

    By Dotty Lynch