July 18, 2004
Seeking Voters Through Habits in TV Viewing
PPLETON, Wis., July 17 — When deciding where to run his television advertisements, President Bush is much more partial than Senator John Kerry to crime shows like "Cops," "Law & Order" and "JAG." Mr. Kerry leans more to lighter fare, like "Judge Judy," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman."
Those choices do not reflect either man's tastes in television, but critical differences in the advertising strategies of their campaigns, which are spending more money for commercials than any other campaigns in presidential history.
Crime shows appeal to the Bush campaign because of its interest in reaching out to Republican men who are attracted to such programming. By contrast, the Kerry campaign is more interested in concentrating on single women, who tend to be drawn to shows with softer themes.
The patterns in the campaigns' advertising approaches appear in one of the most extensive studies of presidential advertising ever produced, which will be released this week by Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the Wisconsin Advertising Project, a research unit run by the University of Wisconsin's Political Science Department. It is the first time Nielsen, best known for providing television ratings, has used its audience measurement and programming monitoring technologies to track political advertising in all 210 television markets for public consumption.
Together, the Bush and the Kerry campaigns are spending a record $180 million on advertising this election year, and the study sheds new light on where the campaigns see the most opportunity and where they are placing some of their most expensive bets.
The study, which covers only the spending on television commercials, also highlights what areas of the country each campaign is trying to reach.
Mr. Kerry was given a tremendous assist from outside groups that have run advertisements against Mr. Bush. The Media Fund, Moveon.org and the AFL-CIO helped Mr. Kerry keep parity with Mr. Bush on the airwaves throughout the battleground states in the spring.
From early March through most of June, viewers in nearly every market where the campaigns were advertising had seen more of Mr. Bush's commercials than Mr. Kerry's. But according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, when the outside groups' advertisements are counted with those of Mr. Kerry, the imbalance reverses, with viewers in nearly every market seeing more advertisements from Mr. Kerry and his supporters. (Mr. Kerry was not allowed by campaign laws to coordinate his advertising plans with the outside groups.)
Take the situation in this small paper mill town in Eastern Wisconsin, Appleton. It is one of the five markets where Mr. Bush has advertised the most. Viewers in a typical household here have seen Mr. Bush's advertisements at least 100 times and Mr. Kerry's 79. But they have seen spots critical of Mr. Bush from the outside groups 46 times, according to the data, giving Democrats a combined advertising advantage.
Still, it is rural towns like Pensacola, Fla., and Lima, Ohio where Mr. Bush has tended to have more advertisements than his Democratic rivals. Mr. Kerry and the liberal groups have built their advantages in large urban centers like Dayton, Ohio, where Mr. Kerry's campaign has placed its greatest advertising emphasis.
Matthew Dowd, Mr. Bush's chief campaign strategist, said his campaign had been running a uniform number of campaign advertisements in all of its targeted markets, urban and rural.
The study also shows some striking similarities in the two campaigns' advertising strategies. The campaigns are directing their vast resources predominantly toward two basic segments of the population - women and the elderly - through some of the most enduring programs on television.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have placed two-thirds of their advertising resources this year on roughly the same 10 programs in the 20 battleground states where they have mostly advertised. Each candidate's top 10 list includes network morning programs like "Today" on NBC, local newscasts, and syndicated shows like "Oprah," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Dr. Phil," according to the study. Each of those shows' audiences is heavy either with people who are over 55 or females.
According to the Nielsen data, advertisements from both candidates have reached more women than men and more older voters than younger ones by double-digit percentages in the various markets.
Strategists from both parties said the data underscored a basic truth: in many respects, the biggest television battle is over the elderly and women. "That's where a lot of the swings are," said Mandy Grunwald, a longtime Democratic operative. "Women are the late deciders; old people still disproportionately vote."
"Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" are typically considered good buys by both parties because they not only deliver large audiences of these prime target voters, but they also do so at lower prices than prime-time programs. Programs with many older viewers, particularly older women, do not fetch the sorts of high advertising prices charged by those watched by younger people, specifically younger men.
Ms. Grunwald said that campaigns traditionally purchased time on television news programs because they deliver older audiences of both party affiliations who are interested in the news and, the logic goes, therefore interested enough to vote.
But it is where the campaigns diverge that says the most about their strategies. "Elections are won in the margins, and there are marginal differences between the campaigns that show us different strategies of the campaigns," said Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project and a coordinator of the study.
The margins, he said, are primarily where the campaigns are trying to mobilize their most loyal supporters.
One of the biggest differences between the campaigns is apparent when it comes to the popular crime series that are now television staples. A list of the 100 programs in which Mr. Bush has advertised the heaviest shows that he has run at least 360 commercials during "NYPD Blue." The program does not show up on a similar list for Mr. Kerry. Likewise, while Mr. Bush's campaign has run at least 800 advertisements in the various "Law & Order" series, none of those programs were on Mr. Kerry's list.
Jon Hutchens, president of Media Strategies and Research, a Democratic media firm, said Mr. Bush's campaign was clearly trying to concentrate on Republican males. "Particularly the audiences of 'Cops' and 'NYPD Blue' are far more conservative, more male than female," he said. "That's kind of his base buy: going more male than not."
Mr. Kerry is not neglecting male voters, Mr. Hutchens said. But he is taking aim at a different sort: those at the older and younger end of the spectrum. That, Mr. Hutchens said, explains why Mr. Kerry has run nearly four times as many advertisements on CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman" - a prime destination for younger male viewers - as Mr. Bush. And unlike Mr. Kerry, Mr. Bush has not advertised on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" on NBC or the "Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn" on CBS enough to register on Nielsen's list of top 100 shows.
Mr. Kerry's advertisements have seemed to focus even more heavily on single women, who are more likely to watch "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "Living It Up with Ali & Jack" and "Judge Judy," a "People's Court" style program in which Mr. Kerry has advertised more than four times as much as Mr. Bush.
Mr. Kerry has also focused far more heavily than Mr. Bush on African-American voters, running 270 spots on "The Parkers" and "The Steve Harvey Show," both of which feature black stars. Those programs do not show up on Mr. Bush's list of top 100 shows.
The president's advisers said they took Mr. Kerry's focus on black voters as a sign that he was worried about mobilizing a sector of the vote he should be able to count upon. But Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Mr. Kerry, said the campaign was simply advertising most heavily where it believed it had the best chance of influencing undecided voters.
Indeed, a study by Scarborough Research found that at any given time of day in the three of the markets where Mr. Kerry is advertising most heavily, Dayton, Columbus and Milwaukee, up to a third of the audience considers itself independent.
Mr. Devine said it was Mr. Bush who seemed to be worried about his base voters, advertising more heavily than Mr. Kerry in rural areas like Appleton. Mr. Bush won the county in which Appleton sits, Outagamie, by 7,000 votes in 2000.
But Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster, said Mr. Bush appeared to be operating on a theory that if he can make big enough gains in rural areas, which are believed to be particularly open to his conservative message on cultural issues, he can carry the election.
"What Bush is really going to try to do is roll up big margins in rural, exurban areas," he said. "He's going to win those areas. But if he wins 60, 65, 70 percent of the vote, then you have a different dynamic."