A Super Bowl campaign ad? Maybe not

January 21, 2008 6:51:15 PM PST
Super Bowl vs. Super Tuesday.

How can Hillary vs. Barack or John vs. Mitt vs. Rudy vs. Mike get any attention when the national spotlight is on Tom vs. Eli?

How about a presidential "vote for me" ad during the Feb. 3 Super Bowl? The notion of such a high-impact political commercial just before two dozen states vote has crossed some media advisers' minds. But chances seem pretty slim.

A 30-second ad during the Super Bowl is going for as much as $3 million. In an age of ultra-targeted media strategies, there are other ways for a political campaign to spend $3 million than on a commercial that would compete with some of the best spots Madison Avenue can produce.

Super Bowl aside, the number of states in play Feb. 5 and the unsettled state of the race two weeks in advance pose a political advertising challenge unseen before.

"It's a long way to go in a very short time," said political ad analyst Evan Tracey. "It feels like bold move time."

Four Super Tuesday states have are home to huge numbers of fans of the Super Bowl New York Giants and New England Patriots: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Other states holding contests on Feb. 5 include California, Illinois and Georgia, expensive media markets all. Overall, 1,678 Democratic delegates and 1,038 Republican delegates are at stake, a hefty portion of the 2,025 needed to win the Democratic nomination and 1,191 required to become the Republican nominee.

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama must first concentrate on Saturday's South Carolina primary. But as the two best financed candidates in the presidential field, they are already spending on television commercials in Feb. 5 states.

Both have ads in northern California, where there is a high concentration of early voting. Obama is also airing ads in Arizona ? concentrating in the early voting center of Phoenix ? and in Missouri, New Mexico and Connecticut.

Democrats assign their delegates to the candidates proportionally, depending on the percentage of the vote they receive in each state. That makes it advisable to compete in as many states as possible.

"It's a semi-national primary, it's 22 states," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said last week. "We're going to try and put as many of those as we can into the Obama column. And we're going to try and get as many delegates as we can on that day."

"Because unlike the Republicans we don't have winner take all rules, you know, you can aggregate delegates even in someone's backyard like Senator Clinton's.' Obama aides say he has the financial resources to advertise in many of the Feb. 5 states, a step he must take early because he's had less exposure there than in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

But sweeping in with saturation television coverage is hardly the answer, especially in California where a statewide buy can run into the millions in a week. So the campaigns are blending paid media with news coverage, phone banks and mailers. The Clinton campaign has already contacted voters by mail, eager to capitalize on early voters.

"It's not the old days when you could do a 1,000-point broadcast air strike," Clinton California state director Ace Smith said, describing a typical late campaign media buy. "Doing this now is really an intricate, woven-together strategy."

The Republican campaigns are still trying to divine what the political terrain will look like going into Super Tuesday. For now, they must concentrate on the Jan. 29 primary in Florida, where the four leaders are packed in a cluster, according to polls in the state. The race is too unsettled to plan Feb. 5 strategy.

John McCain has victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Mitt Romney has wins in Michigan, Wyoming and Nevada, Mike Huckabee won in Iowa, and Rudy Giuliani has hunkered down in Florida, looking for a breakout victory there next week.

If Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, wins in Florida, the rest of the field may cede New York and New Jersey to him ? though a poll out Monday has him trailing McCain in New York. If Giuliani loses Florida, New York and New Jersey could be up for grabs.

Under Republican rules, delegates are not distributed proportionally. Winners usually get all the delegates, often based on outcomes in the congressional districts of each state.

Strategically, that means the Republican candidates will compete regionally, based on their relative strengths. Huckabee, for instance, will probably be more active in the South, including his home state of Arkansas as well as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri. Romney will look to the Northeast ? his home state of Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut ? and Utah where his Mormon roots are strong.

Candidates are likely to cede Arizona to McCain, the state's senator. McCain will also look for ground in states that permit independents to vote in Republican primaries, such as Illinois, Georgia and Missouri.

"You have to be extremely strategic with your ads," said GOP strategist Greg Mueller, who is not affiliated with any campaign. "It's very tough to be in the air" in all the Feb. 5 states. "You have to have a combination of momentum, organization and be on the air where you message has been resonating. You have to energize your vote."

While national ads on the broadcast networks might be too expensive, campaigns are expected to begin airing national ads on cable news networks. Giuliani already has ads on Fox News Channel. Other Republicans are expected to place ads on Fox, which draws a heavy Republican audience.

Obama began airing a national ad Monday on CNN and MSNBC, where viewers tend to lean more Democratic.

The candidates don't have the luxury they had in Iowa and New Hampshire of introducing themselves to voters over time with as many as 20 different commercials emphasizing biography, issues and vision.

"Now you're talking about a two- or three-ad package," said Steve Murphy, a Democratic media strategist who advised Bill Richardson's campaign. "Whatever you want them to remember about you is going to have to be done in three ads."

As for the Super Bowl, campaigns are still weighing whether to buy less expensive regional spots for the game. That would permit them to address a more specific audience at a cost that is lower, though still expensive by other advertising standards.

Tracey, the ad analyst and president of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, puts the odds against a national Super Bowl political ad at 5-1.

If such an add were seen as successful, "you immediately ascend to the Karl Rove position of political strategy," he said. "If not, you will be answering why you did that for the rest of your political consulting career."