If you hate political ads, then I have bad news for you: Next year, White House and congressional candidates will flood television and other media with campaign messages as the 2012 election shapes up as the most expensive in history. Democrats and Republicans are already squeezing contributors because spending will soar as this is the first election in more than a decade without limits on corporate and union contributions. TV stations will benefit most: In 2010 about 75% of ad budgets went to broadcast TV vs. 7.9% for cable and 4.3% for Web destinations, according to PQ Media. But a lot could change this time out. Here are some of the key questions:
How much will be spent on advertising? It’ll be a record, but there’s no consensus on the likely total. Research firm Washington Analysis projects $4 billion, up from $3.2 billion in 2010 and $2.6 billion in 2008. Moody’s Investors Service says spending in 2012 could rise as much as 18% vs 2010 in “an unprecedented frenzy.” That strikes some as too high in a year with few gubernatorial races and — unlike in 2008 — no contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. “I don’t think it’s going to be a whole lot bigger than 2010,” says Jack Poor, who tracks political spending for the Television Bureau of Advertising. “If I were to take a wild guess, I’d say 10%.”
Will cable operators take political ads from broadcast TV? Hope springs eternal among cable companies. They say that their ability to target messages to communities makes them more cost effective than TV stations that transmit to a large region. But politicos don’t seem to agree. “If you add those (local) areas up it isn’t necessarily less expensive than (it is) to buy the whole market” on broadcast TV, former Obama political advisor David Axelrod told cable executives recently. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie says much the same thing: “If the president has $1 billion to spend, he’ll buy American Idol and NCIS. And our candidate will be buying the Cooking Channel in Akron, Ohio.” Cable executives say they may have to eat those words. “I don’t know what (Axelrod) is talking about,” says Andrew Capone of NCC Media -– the local cable ad sales firm owned by Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox. “Every single year more money has flowed to spot cable.”
What about the Internet? Candidates are intrigued. Locally focused sites “will see a significant increase from a low dollar base,” says Kathleen Keefe, Hearst Television’s VP of sales. Axelrod also says that “Facebook has become hugely important. We’re all talking to 20 year olds and asking them to explain what the next best thing will be.” But the Web is still seen as a supplement to the main event on TV. “That’s where the undecided voters are,” says Campaign Media Analysis Group president Ken Goldstein. “On the Internet I have to actively go find the message.”
Which states will benefit most? Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia are presidential election battleground states and probably will have competitive Senate or gubernatorial contests, Moody’s says. Boston will benefit from the presidential primary in nearby New Hampshire and a potentially close Massachusetts race as Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who replaced the late Ted Kennedy in 2010, runs for his first full term. Nevada also could become important if the presidential campaign is tight and if Democrats find a strong candidate to oppose Sen. Dean Heller –- appointed last month to replace John Ensign, who resigned following disclosures of his extramarital affair. In a close presidential race Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Utah will be important. Although fewer than 10 Senate races are considered competitive, a lot of cash could go to those campaigns as Republicans try to take control. But House races may see most of the action. “Even though I think the Republicans will keep the House, the Democrats are going to go for it anyway,” Keefe says.
What TV station owners will benefit most? Depends on who you ask. Washington Analysis says that EW Scripps, Entravision, CBS, Meredith, Media General, Sinclair and LIN Broadcasting have high concentrations of stations in states that will see a lot of spending. But Moody’s likes Barrington, Gray, Local TV, Nexstar and NVT Networks.
How well will Spanish-language stations do? They should see big increases from political campaigns. Ad sales for Spanish-language stations are growing faster than the overall market, according to Kantar Media. Texas will have four additional House seats and Florida will have two. Also, Univision, the No. 1 Spanish broadcaster, is making a big effort to attract campaign dollars. But they have a lot of ground to make up. Less than 4% of the revenues for Spanish-language broadcasters in election years come from political ads vs. about 10% for English language stations, Moody’s says.
When will political spending peak? That’s not as clear as it used to be. About a third of all voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2008, and that could grow in 2012 as several states relax restrictions on early voting. “This throws the calculus off” for political campaigns, Poor says. “It’s going to spread out the heavy spending” in the weeks leading up to Nov. 6.