Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's the first day of November which means we're just one week away from the last day to cast your ballot in this year's midterm elections.
As campaigns begin wrapping up, candidates are pushing out their closing statements through political advertising. According to AdImpact, in some of the close Senate races around the country, like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, voters are set to see $81 million in ad spending between now and Election Day.
In the Arizona Senate race, incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly and his supporters have spent more on highlighting issues of abortion access than any other issue.
Speaker 1: No abortions even in the case of rape and incest. That extremism and government control is the opposite of what we fought for, it's un-American. Blake Masters is wrong for Arizona, and he's wrong for America.
Melissa: Senator Kelly's challenger, Blake Masters, has hit back with ads of his own.
Speaker 2: Blake Master supports compromise, reasonably regulate late-term abortion with an exception to protect the mother, but Mark Kelly's position is extreme, abortion even after the sonogram, right up to the due date for any reason. Kelly is just not reasonable.
Melissa: I'm joined now by John Rowley, who is political, digital, and media consultant and founder of CounterPoint Messaging. Welcome to The Takeaway, John.
John Rowley: It must be political advertising season, so we're coming together or the pitch peak of it.
Melissa: It is. It's like as soon as it starts happening on my social media, the digital space, my television, I'm like, "Oh, I need to talk to John." For a decade now, we've been talking about this. I trust you on some of the big like just understanding why this is all still happening. Let's just walk through the five Ws of political advertising a little bit. First, whose ads are these, where is the big-spending coming from, are these the candidate's campaigns, or are these outside third parties that are spending on this?
John: Melissa, one of the most misunderstood things, I think, by voters about what's happening, particularly this time of year, is they think of these as one-on-one contest, the boxing match, a tennis game. That's 2002, 2006 thinking. These are like 5-on-5 basketball, 11-on-11 football because you've got the candidate versus the candidate, the party versus the party, the labor group versus a business group. There are so many entities. Oftentimes, the candidate wants to deliver the warm and fuzzy and sugar and spice, and what the outside entities do the hatchet work.
It's really hard to have a sense of who's doing what, especially you look at a race like Georgia, which will probably have two dozen and in 2020 had 50 different entities, so it's a blur for voters and for understandable reasons.
Melissa: One of the other reasons it's a blur is where ads are. When I first got to know your work, mostly advertising was happening on radio and television, which tells you perhaps how long we've known each other. Tell me now where do political consultants see the most impact dollar for dollar, is it TV, is it radio, or is it these new digital spaces?
John: Well, an ideal campaign is all of the above in addition to direct mail and door knocking and texting to have a real integrated marketing campaign, so to speak. Television is still the big stick, especially in a midterm where the electorate is a little older. TV's going to be a little more resonant. Television was a little less important in 2020, and it'll be at its all-time least important in 2024, but it's still the most powerful weapon to show the most movement. All the ways we used to campaign 10, 20, 30 years ago are less effective: mail, TV, radio.
The challenge is that there's not one place to now go. You just advertise one place to get everybody online. You have streaming and YouTube, and just thousands of sites where you can vote or target or demographically target. There's many places just online that has it's own mosaic kind of media mix. We spent a lot of time in campaigns, what are the issues, and then what are the ads.
I think really the thing that sets campaigns and even consultants apart now is how do you target that media mix of getting the modulating between older forms of communication and all the digital forms of communication. That's really where a lot of campaigns are going to win or lose now.
Melissa: Talk to me in modulating that mix also about the when of advertising. In watching it, there were some campaigns that were out early. They were the first ads that I was seeing. There's others that have shown up later but are blanketing but of course, at a time, when everything is out there. How do you think strategically about when one's advertising shows up?
John: Part of it is voters have to have an open heart for advertising. In some of these big races, I think there's so much money spent. You're jamming it down their throats. They're not ready in February for a general election, but there is still advertising happening. There's a sweet spot now between probably three and six weeks out where I think a lot of the persuadable decision-making happens when used to be you wanted to peak the last day or two in an election.
We would still be making years ago last-minute ads right now to air the last three or four days, maybe even spring away to tack on an opponent, but I think voters are really checking out, the last couple of days, and then you also have voting patterns where with early voting absentee, vote by mail and a lot of places people are making their decisions two, three, four weeks from the election, so you also have to begin your advertising at a different place.
If you're in a state like Florida, a big absentee vote state, Oregon, Washington, big vote by mail states, you want to start earlier. If you're in a place like Oklahoma that has two or three days of early voting, you can still get a lot of damage done in the last two or three weeks.
Melissa: So interesting to hear you say that because as you say get a lot of damage done because I was coming to the what ads, so what pierces through? It's so interesting to hear you say the voters have to have an open heart to be moved on advertising. I'm like, "Does anybody have an open heart in American politics anymore?" What are the ads that pierce either through doing a lot of damage or by introducing a new message? What seems to actually make any difference?
John: First of all, when you think about advertising in America, whether someone has an eighth-grade education or PhD, they are an advertising expert because they get so much of it. They probably consume as much advertising as they do food or drink really, and so they know a lot. They have a big BS detector and so I think credibility is important. I think this time of year when candidates are jumping up and down for attention, I think a lot of that advertising gives it ignored.
One of the big things in such a partisan world that we live in is breaking out of the caricatures beach it party likes to create for each other and maybe breaking out of character. Some of the most successful Republican campaigns you've seen run, W Bush in his early career, Youngkin in Virginia, these are Republicans who have a strong education message. One thing we see in this cycle, and it's worked in other important federal cycles for Democrats laying a line in the sand on veterans issues, maybe not what you'd expect the Democrats talk about.
Getting out of the tired debates of less spending versus more investing on the right and the left, pro-education, pro-Social Security Democrats, Republicans who want to take it away. It the abortion conversation interesting because that's a debate we've been having for a while, and it's gone from a targeted communication in this cycle where you really want to figure out if someone's open, so to speak, to that message before you communicate with them in a more narrowcast faction to where it's been almost, not just a network TV message for everybody, but a national message for the Democrats for a few months.
Melissa: When we talk about Democrats that might be going at least a bit against type, at least in self-presentation, John Fetterman in Pennsylvania certainly comes to mind, but in many ways, the advertising conversation between the Republican candidate Mehmet Oz and the Democratic candidate John Fetterman has tracked along this question of taxes and capacity. Let's take a listen to first an Oz and then a Fetterman campaign ad.
Speaker 3: Why is radical John Fetterman dodging debates because he can't defend freeing convicted murderers even over other Democrats' objections?
Speaker 4: After my stroke, I was just grateful to see Giselle and our kids. Across Pennsylvania, I keep seeing families that don't have enough time to focus on each other. They're struggling, left behind. We got to make it easier for people to spend time with those they love. Politicians spent so much time fighting about the things that don't matter.
Melissa: All right, so those are both direct candidate-to-candidate as you were saying sort of boxing match ads, what do you hear there?
John: Well, I think about what is the emotional resonance of ads. I think there's too little understanding until recently about the brain science of how people make decisions around ads and politics, the behavioral research. We're getting a lot more of those. I hear two ads in a way that are really the emotional battle for the soul of that race. Hypocrisy versus authenticity. The thing that has helped Fetterman until recently is he is authentically a little different.
I think he has broke tight for a lot of candidates, and Oz has tuned in on the taxes. I think there's some other ads about his-- he lived with his parents or lived off his parents. The hypocrisy of raising taxes versus his authenticity. If that race is truly a tossup, that's where the part of the battle line is in the last couple of weeks.
Melissa: In a senate race, there's so much information and the gubernatorial race is so much information. It's always fine to say the other candidate's name. I'm wondering, I've been seeing a fair number of State House races and that sort of thing. It seems like it's breaking the rule that I'd learned many, many years ago, which is you don't say your opponent's name because in low-information races. That may be the only time their name is said. Don't you pay for it. Is that rule out now?
John: I think in some ways that's a little bit of an adage from the stump speech era of politics. I think if you're ahead and you're trying to flick your opponent's attacks off your shirt collar, so to speak, then I think it's fine to not mention their name and not elevate them. If it is a nip-and-tuck, hammer-and-tong race, or anywhere within seven to nine points, then if you want to deliver the contrast, you're going to have to mention their name. Mainly, due to voter attention span.
We do a lot of host election research to understand what ads work, what messages worked, what mediums were effective. Even in campaigns when we fully penetrate where we've worn the electorate out with all kinds of communication, it's humbling as somebody who does political ads to realize how little got through and is it because voters don't care, or too many voters aren't that smart now? No, I don't think so. I just think they're busy and this isn't one of the top priorities of their life.
Melissa: John Rowley is a political, digital, and media consultant and founder of CounterPoint Messaging. Thanks for joining us today, John.
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