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CAMPAIGN 2004

Politicians tuning in to voters' favorite shows

Niche marketing aims at swing voters in 17 key states

By Jeff Zeleny
Tribune national correspondent

March 30, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- It may be seven months until Election Day, but as viewers of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Jeopardy" and even college basketball have discovered, an unprecedented television air war is under way between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.


Target audiences



Battleground states
In 17 battleground states and on specialty cable channels nationwide, the candidates and independent Democratic groups have spent nearly $29 million to promote themselves and define their opponent in the opening weeks of the general election campaign. And like for a new brand of cold medicine or the latest model of a sport-utility vehicle, the campaigns are beginning to target segments of voters with surgical-like precision.

That's why in St. Louis recently, viewers of shows as varied as "American Idol" and "America's Most Wanted" have seen a campaign ad from Bush, but not Kerry. At the same time, Democratic commercials criticizing the Bush have appeared on shows ranging from "The Simpsons" to "Judge Judy."

On television screens, the 2004 presidential race is off to a furiously fast start, with political pitches being broadcast months earlier than in previous campaigns. More than ever before, niche marketing is being blended with political strategy, hoping to win over a slice of undecided voters that analysts believe will decide the election.

"Candidates are pretty much sold like toothpaste today with marketing techniques taken from the business world," said Ken Warren, who studies political communication at St. Louis University. "Thirty-second commercials can be very, very effective. Some Americans learn more from the 30-second commercials than from anything else."

The moment it became clear that Kerry would seal the Democratic nomination, the Bush-Cheney campaign began aggressively targeting Missouri and 16 other states that were closely divided in the 2000 presidential race. The Kerry campaign and two well-financed, independent Democratic groups followed suit to complete an advertising onslaught that provides a glimpse into the next seven months of the race.

In addition to spending at least $15 million in the battleground states, Bush also has paid considerable attention to expanding his support among male voters by advertising on The Golf Channel, Travel & Leisure and CNBC. The Bush ads also are frequently aired during sports programming on local stations across the country, including a recent St. Louis Cardinals preseason special, a St. Louis Blues hockey game and NASCAR coverage on Fox.

A Tribune examination of the ad placement, using data from an independent firm that monitors political advertising, offered a show-by-show look inside the barrage of commercials. The analysis, which covered ads aired during the first three weeks of March, showed Kerry and the Democratic groups did not advertise during televised sports in St. Louis but focused on programs that attracted more female viewers, including "Joan of Arcadia," a drama, and daytime shows such as "The People's Court."

The division between the sexes in the advertising strategy underscored the potential challenges for both sides in the general election race. Strategists said the Bush commercials on cable television were designed to drive up Kerry's negative opinion-poll ratings among men and other demographic groups.

In a national USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll conducted one month ago, Kerry was leading Bush by 8 percentage points. A survey released Monday showed that Bush has ovecome the gap and is leading Kerry by 4 points. A majority of voters in the new poll say they believe Kerry vacillates on major issues and would raise taxes if elected--both topics that Bush has hammered again and again as he tries to define Kerry.

Kerry unknown to many

"There is still a big chunk of Americans who don't know who John Kerry is. This is a major opportunity to introduce him," said Ken Goldstein, who directs the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which studies the presidential race. "They clearly had a plan to take Kerry down, notch by notch, over the next few weeks."

Evan Tracey, chief operating officer for the independent tracking firm TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, said Bush was able to directly target his supporters by demographics, rather than geography, through advertising on specialty cable channels. More than 85 percent of U.S. households have cable television, he said, a significant increase from even four years ago.

"This is a cable television election," said Tracey, who monitors political advertising for the Tribune and other clients in the nation's top 100 media markets. "Bush is doing an under-the-radar campaign on national cable, which gauges the momentum of the race. He is the only one really reaching out to a national audience with his advertising dollars."

While both candidates opened the campaign trying to bolster their supporters, their commercials to reach swing voters often appear on the same programs. Republicans and Democrats advertised heavily on local news programming, network morning shows and highly rated programs such as "Dr. Phil," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Law and Order."

One set of commercials features the president sitting with First Lady Laura Bush in the White House, talking about "steady leadership in times of change." Another set shows Kerry, with black-and-white images from his service in Vietnam, promising "a new direction for America."

The campaign ads, steeped in seriousness, are aired in succession with pitches for common, household goods. A day of television viewing in St. Louis found the political spots sandwiched between ads for an improved blend of prune juice, a new lawnmower and countless offers for low mortgage rates or discount aluminum siding.

While the candidates are trying to define one another, some political analysts wonder whether Bush and Kerry are wasting money by spending millions on advertising campaigns that could easily be forgotten by August, September or October, when voters are likely to be paying closer attention.

"The amount of advertising this early is off the charts," Tracey said. "Are voters really capable of sitting through this for 7 1/2 more months? It's a lot to expect TV viewers to sit through and get used to."

While both candidates are relying upon Missouri as a bellwether state, far more ads have been aired in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania since the advertising campaign began in earnest March 3. More than $5 million has been spent in Florida alone in the last month, the TNSMI/CMAG analysis showed while virtually no money has been spent in Illinois, California or New York, where Bush has ruled out waging a serious campaign.

Groups helping Kerry

It's not merely Bush and Kerry, though, who are bombarding television screens. If that were the case, Kerry would be at a steep disadvantage. In the last month, he has spent $3 million compared with Bush's $17 million.

In the first presidential race under new campaign finance provisions, Kerry is benefiting from two liberal organizations funded by unlimited contributions from wealthy Democratic donors. By law, the Media Fund and MoveOn.org are not allowed to coordinate their spending with the Kerry campaign, but Republicans have accused the groups of working in concert. The controversy is likely to be resolved in the courts.

Until then, the Democratic organizations will offer the party's presumptive nominee a considerable boost targeting voters with ads deeply critical of Bush.

In Springfield, Mo., the Kerry campaign ran only five television spots during the first three weeks of March. But the independent groups aired 271 commercials, including several ads that reached a variety of niche viewers, including those who watch the "U.S. Farm Report" and "The Andy Griffith Show."

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