Voters Harder to Reach As Media Outlets Multiply

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2004; Page A01

As a political ad specialist in the 1990s, Jim Margolis followed a simple rule of thumb: To ensure that would-be voters saw and remembered his candidate's television commercials, Margolis ran each ad at least five times.

Nowadays, Margolis, an adviser to Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign, employs a different formula. To ensure the same level of awareness and memorability, Margolis does not retire a commercial until his target audience has seen it at least 12 times.

The change in Margolis's media strategy says much about the difficulties that candidates face in talking to voters these days. With TV viewers dispersed among more than 100 channels, with more ads of every kind cluttering the air and more ways to zap them at home, it has become tougher each year for politicians to reach the masses with their messages.

The problem may be most acute on television -- the medium of choice for political advertising over the past 50 years -- but the alternatives are not much better. No matter where political consultants turn these days -- to the mail, the phones, the Internet and polls -- the story is much the same. Each message channel is more crowded, and hence less effective, in reaching people than in preceding elections. As veteran Democratic direct-mail specialist Hal Malchow puts it, "all media for communicating with voters are in trouble."

Malchow's Republican counterpart, Richard A. Viguerie, has watched the cost of sending candidate fundraising letters soar over the past four decades, even as response rates have remained flat. He thinks he knows why. "People used to go to their mailboxes and get maybe one or two appeals" from candidates and nonprofit causes, says Viguerie, who helped build the modern conservative movement with his fundraising acumen. "Now it's five or 10 a day. . . . When I first got started, people complained about getting so much mail. That was a fraction of what they get now."

Campaign pollsters trying to read public opinion face their own set of headaches. Cooperation with phone-based polls has been falling for years, driven by a number of factors: call-blocking technologies such as caller ID, concerns about telemarketing, the rising number of unlisted numbers and increased use of cell phones (federal rules prevent pollsters from calling anyone who has to pay for the call).

It is not unusual for pollsters to make seven or eight calls to reach just one willing survey participant, compared with response rates that were twice as high a decade ago, says Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University political science professor who is president-elect of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The problem figures to grow even more confounding as people take advantage of new federal rules that permit them to keep their home phone numbers if they switch to wireless service, he says.

Given that people who do not answer their phone or cannot be reached may hold very different opinions than those who do, pollsters worry that they are reaching increasingly less representative samples of the public, potentially skewing a poll's results, Zukin says.

The most obvious upshot of these diminishing returns is that it has become much more expensive to run a political campaign. Reaching distracted TV viewers with an ad 12 times obviously costs more than reaching them five times. Similarly, calling 6,000 phone numbers to get a few hundred useable responses -- as many pollsters do -- is costlier than a conducting a poll that elicits a more efficient response. Political consultants compare rising media costs to an arms race, as ever-greater sums produce messages that reach fewer and fewer eyes and ears.

Media costs are by far the biggest single expenditure for the two major-party presidential campaigns. Advertising and promotion of all types accounted for about 60 percent of President Bush's record spending of $129.8 million, and about 48 percent of Kerry's $88.7 million through the end of April, according to Federal Election Commission figures.

The fragmenting of the mass audiences into smaller splinters has fueled a countertrend: "niche" ads that play to narrow subgroups of voters, or to those in a discrete geographic area. Political consultant Tad Devine, another Kerry adviser, recalled producing an anti-development commercial for a gubernatorial candidate not long ago that ran only on a cable TV system in a county where anti-development sentiment was high. Devine points out that such targeting, or "audience segmentation," is more feasible, thanks to increased media specialization. Cable networks, for example, aim at narrow segments, such as young female viewers, and there are Web pages for every conceivable interest. "If you want to reach a certain demographic group, you can do it now in a way you couldn't before," he says.

The ad-buying patterns of the Bush and Kerry campaigns reflect this to some extent. Devine estimates that 85 percent of the approximately $80 million poured into TV ads by the two campaigns so far has been directed at a relatively small number of potential voters -- those in about 18 states considered up for grabs. A far smaller amount, about $7 million, has been spent on national cable networks, which have low ratings.

This means that a relatively small portion of the electorate is being bombarded with messages -- while the majority outside the critical "swing" states probably has not seen a single presidential commercial.

Political consultants recognize this as the downside of "narrowcasting." "The danger for democracy is that we're losing the universal campfire," in which all voters see and hear a common set of messages from the candidates, says Bill Carrick, media adviser for the recent presidential campaign of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "It's not only harder for candidates to communicate universal themes, there's less pressure to do so." When a candidate speaks only to his base of supporters through narrowly targeted media, it accentuates the electorate's partisan drift, Carrick suggests.

Narrowcasting also makes it easier for a person with little interest in politics to tune out political speech altogether and become a non-voter, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. A generation ago, she says, viewers were much more likely to come across a political ad or news about politics, in large part because media options were far more limited.

Until the early 1990s, it was possible for presidential campaigns to arrest the attention of a majority of the public by "roadblocking" airtime -- that is, running commercials on all three leading networks at approximately the same time on the same night.

But such a strategy would be almost unthinkable, or at least prohibitively expensive, now. The three-network universe has evolved into a far noisier electronic bazaar in the past two decades. Since the advent of the VCR in the early 1980s, people have had no end of electronic distractions at home: multichannel cable TV and satellite service, DVD players, MP3 players, video-game consoles, digital recorders such as TiVo, high-speed Internet connections, and cell phones, among others.

As a result, the broadcast networks, which commanded 71 percent of the prime-time audience in the 1991-1992 season, attracted 52 percent in the 2003-2004 season, according to Nielsen Media Research. Even that diminished figure overstates the share of any single network inasmuch as the original Big Three of broadcasting (ABC, CBS and NBC) now share 52 percent of the prime-time audience with four other national broadcasters (Fox, UPN, the WB and Pax). The balance of viewers are scattered across dozens of cable and independent stations.

This means that a campaign would have to roadblock airtime on more than a dozen networks to reach the same number of viewers it would have reached by buying ads on three networks simultaneously only 12 years ago.

"The bulk of the diffusion of the audience to alternative channels is not to news stations," points out Annenberg's Jamieson. "You can't force people to pay attention to news and [political advertising], of course, but there was a great benefit to being exposed to it. You picked up the message of what was important, or at least what the national conversation was, even if you weren't paying very close attention. . . . We're losing that common understanding."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company