“I’ve spent no money, and I’m number one.” â€”Â
â€I’m going to do something really novel. It’s called advertising.â€™â€™ â€”Â
Both presidential candidates, one the yearâ€™s big surprise and the other its big disappointment, were talking about television, for a half century the dominant weapon of national politics.
Trump was proclaiming its irrelevance; Bush was acknowledging such skepticism â€”Â while doubling down.
Itâ€™s a paradox of the 2016 campaign: unprecedented political spending on TV ads, and unprecedented doubt over whether itâ€™s having much impact.
The fall of King TV is not imminent. But in 2015, TV broadcast advertising seemedÂ inversely related to political success, as measured by polls.
Outsider-neophytes like Trump have thrived with little or no paid TV, while some of the least successful candidates have spent the most.
Bushâ€™s campaign and political action committee spent more than twice as much as the nearest Republican, Marco Rubio, and aired about $30 million worth of ads in early voting states.Â
Other candidates have fared even worse.
â€¢Â Rick Perryâ€™s political action committee spent more than $900,000 in Iowa after he announced his candidacy in June. Three months later, he was out of the race.
â€¢Â A Scott Walker PAC had begun a $17 million campaign just a few days before the former Iowa front-runner dropped out in September.
â€¢Â A PAC supporting John Kasich bought more than $5 million in TV ads in New Hampshire this fall, but his share of Republican support there has dropped from 12.7% in late summer to 9%, according to RealClearPoliticsâ€™ latest poll average.
Nor was TV decisive in electing the president four years ago, says John Geer, author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns
Yet political advertising remains a sellerâ€™s market.Â The volume of GOP presidential ads is up 45% over four years ago, according to the Wesleyan University Media Project.Â
Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising, estimates that about $4.4 billion will be spent on TV for the 2016 election, up from $3.8 billion in the 2012 campaign. TV spending on the GOP presidential race alone is five times higher than at the same point four years ago, partly because PACs â€” which don’t pay the lower rates offered by law to campaigns â€” now account forÂ eight of every 10 ad dollars spent.
After the Paris terror attacks, Bush, Rubio, Chris Christie, Kasich, Lindsey Graham (alsoÂ now out of the race) and others all released new ads and made major airtime buys in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Some wonder if this default response still makes sense.Â â€œFor candidates whoâ€™ve failed to build momentum with ads,â€™â€™ says Kantarâ€™s Elizabeth Wilner, â€œthe response has been to run more ads.â€™â€™ Big TV buys â€” traditionally a sign of a campaignâ€™s strength â€” are beginning to look like a sign of weakness.
John Philip Sousa IV, head of the super PAC backing Carson, says he thinks voters in the early primary states are beginning to associate the classic saturation air campaigns with the â€œbusiness as usual politicsâ€™â€™Â they so disdain.
Meanwhile, digital advertising is beginning to challenge TVâ€™s dominance. According to a report for clients by the consulting firm Borrell Associates, political spending on digital ads will pass $1 billion for the first time in this election, and digitalâ€™s share of the ad pie will rise by 9 percentage points. By the 2020 election, Borrell forecasts, digital will have risen to within 30% of broadcast TV.
Listen to Borrellâ€™s Kip Cassino: â€œCanny pols realize more folks are carrying their lives around in their pocketsâ€™â€™ â€”Â on mobile devices â€” â€˜â€™and you have to put your message there.â€™â€™
â€œFree mediaâ€™â€™ â€“ everything from an appearance on CNN to a tweet â€“ is alsoÂ eroding TVâ€™s franchise. Trump is the exemplar. He makes so much news heâ€™s constantly on TV without having to pay for it, and heâ€™s a sensation on Twitter, with 5 million followers and counting.
But for the foreseeable future, broadcast TVâ€™s unique advantages will make it the most important single channel in politics. Experts say the poll woes of stalwart advertisers such as Bush are primarily the fault of the candidates, not their advertising medium.
â€œTV is powerful,â€™â€™ says Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University communications expert whoâ€™s consulted in presidential and congressional races. â€œItâ€™s visual, itâ€™s emotional, it reaches into homes. And you can run an ad a zillion times.â€™â€™
Those spots also appear for free online, says Geer, the political advertising analyst. â€œBut the news media doesnâ€™t take them seriously unless the campaign puts serious money behind it.â€™â€™ That means TV.
And voters, especially older ones, still watch a lot. Nielsen, the ratings service, says Americans view an average of 36 hours a week; those over 50 watch 47 hours.
Even Trump, who’s promised to advertise on TV but as yet has not done so,Â may be coming around. He said Tuesday he’ll spendÂ about $2 million a weekÂ in three earlyÂ voting states. He doesn’t think he needs to, he told reporters before an Iowa rally, but “I don’t want to take any chances.”
TV, however,Â may be heading for a cliff.Â Even the PACs, which were essentially devised to finance TV ads, areÂ now investing more in non-broadcast campaigning, And the Borrell report predicts that after 2016, â€œbroadcast TVâ€™s fall from political ad spending grace will be breathtaking.â€™â€™Â By 2020, it estimates, TV will have lost almost 14 share points, as digital nips at its heels.
For now, though â€” whatever its expense and however questionable its utility â€” TV advertising in a close election is like nuclear weapons in the Cold War: No one wants to risk disarming unilaterally. â€œThat,â€™â€™ says Berkovitz, â€œwould take real cojones.â€™â€™
Sousa (the 64-year-old great-grandson of the March King) says he hated being pummeled with broadcast ads when he visited Iowa. But the pro-Carson PAC he heads, The 2016 Committee, has beenÂ spending $4.3 million on ads in early voting states, most of it for TV in Iowa, where polls have shownÂ Carson’s strength slipping.
â€œWeâ€™re doing it because we have to,â€™â€™ SousaÂ says, â€œbut I believe at some point people will start to tune it out. â€¦ Will it happen in my lifetime? I doubt it.â€™â€™
He may not have to wait. This weekÂ Jeb Bush’s campaign announced it was doubling its staff on the ground in Iowa â€” and canceling $1 million in television ads.