MADISON – If you’re a political candidate who wants to communicate with voters, your choices aren’t very good.
You can hope the news media will cover your race on a regular basis, but the sad reality in many newsrooms today is that politics isn’t high on the assignment list. Budget cuts, ratings-driven consultants and a belief that readers and viewers don’t care have combined to reduce the column inches and air time devoted to election coverage.
You can hope that people will attend your speeches or public forums so they can compare and contrast your views with those of your opponent. Some people do, but most are too busy to attend, don’t hear or read about the forums in advance, or think such events are better attended by more “informed” voters.
Go door-to-door? That’s nostalgic, but not always realistic. Even if your district is shoe leather-friendly, the percentage of doors that actually crack open is small. We’re more likely to sic our dogs on politicians than actually converse with them.
Yard signs? They’re often stolen or defaced within hours of being posted.
Bumper stickers? Not bad for boosting name identification, but they can annoy as many potential voters as they attract.
Web sites? A great source of unfiltered information, but it takes money to advertise your Internet site in print or on air so voters know it’s there.
Newspaper ads? Actually, they’re fairly underrated in terms of reaching likely voters. But the ad has to be big enough or bold enough to catch a reader’s eye – and that’s not cheap. In urban markets, it’s not enough to advertise in the daily paper, but the weekly alternative and ethnic papers, as well.
How about pursuing “new media” and online video such as myspace.com, YouTube and blogs? Sure, but just remember there are 32,000 groups competing for attention on the myspace “Government & Politics” page alone.
You can buy television ads, but they’re brutally expensive to produce and air. That means you must raise a lot of money from donors, which sets you up for criticism from your opponent, campaign reform groups or the television news media itself. (This, of course, is often the same local television media that has come to rely upon political ads as a revenue source. The Project for Journalism Excellence estimated political ads accounted for a record 7.4 percent of local television revenue in 2006.)
In our busy world, where the competition for eyes and ears is more intense than ever, candidates for political office at all levels are trying to rise above the din. They’re essentially no different than companies that sell soap or soft drinks: They are trying to figure out how to reach you. Because there are so many types of media (print, broadcast, Internet and other “new” media) competing for your attention, and because traditional media faces declining market shares, they spread their bets.
That’s costly, and it helps to explain why the cost of election campaigns is rising. Then again, so is the cost of many marketing and advertising campaigns.
Advertising spending in 2006 rose 4.6 percent, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, the advertising intelligence service of The Nielsen Company. Advertising spending in the 10 largest categories alone (automotive, pharmaceuticals, fast food and department stores are prominent examples) was $45 billion. On a per capita basis, that’s about $880 million in major category advertising in Wisconsin. Spending outside the top 10 categories easily pushes the Wisconsin figure to $1 billion.
If companies are spending billions to sell us cars, computers and athletic shoes, is it all that surprising that candidates, political parties and lobbying groups would spend millions to get their messages heard?
In the debate over campaign finance reform, let’s not lose sight of why they cost so much: We have short attention spans. There are few things in America more important than nurturing our democracy, yet we would rather play another video game than spend a few minutes listening to a candidate for the local school board. If we’re tired of how campaigns are financed, we should first complain to that face in the mirror.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.