The big story of Election 2004 is the record $1.6 billion in ad
spending. But where is the money going? To woo voters in key states. John Kerry
and George Bush have bought several hundred million dollars' worth of local TV
spots, to the exclusion of national media.
But now they're buying cable like never before. It may be the stealth
bomber in this year's race.
To date, Bush and Kerry have spent some $13 million—or 6% of their
total expenditures—on cable networks, according to TNSMI/Campaign Media
Analysis Group. That's more than any presidential candidate in history.
In an effort to shore up support, both are likely to spend even more to
target key demos in the frenzied final months of campaigning.
In fact, Evan Tracey, COO of TNSMI/ CMAG, thinks cable could account for
20%-30% of Bush and Kerry's spending between
now and Nov. 2.
"My sense of cable this [election] is that it allows the candidates to
do two things," says Tracey. "First, to talk to a national audience in a fairly
economical way. And second, to talk to demographics, rather than geographics.
Since cable is format-oriented, you can talk to sports fans, gun owners and
news junkies around the clock."
Commercial time in local broadcast markets is being snapped up as both
parties try to reach general voters. Cable, by contrast, allows the candidates
to zero in on voters with lifestyle interests that match specific Republican or
"Micro-targeting is something you hear a lot about in this election,"
says Tracey. "When you have an electorate as close as it is right now, it's
very important to get your voters out first. If you had 500,000 registered
voters who didn't vote in Ohio last election and you get two-thirds of them to
vote this time, it doesn't matter what the undecideds do."
For President Bush, it means placing a greater emphasis on reaching
supporters with 1,700 spots on cable news networks CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. For
Kerry's part, his campaign placed 108 spots between March 3 and Aug. 9 on BET,
according to TNSMI/CMAG. In addition, Kerry's team has placed 295 ads on the
three cable news networks, but the majority have run on CNN.
Bush has also targeted several hundred spots on selected cable networks,
ranging from ESPN to FX. CMAG estimates that Bush has already spent $10 million
on network cable, compared with about $3 million by Kerry.
"If you do your polling, you know what these people are interested in,
so you buy the programs that reach them," says Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean
of Boston University's College of Communication. "That's the 20-year rationale
for using cable."
Bruce Mentzer, president of media-buying agency Mentzer Media, says Bush
and Kerry are also using cable to reach specific demos. "When Bush first went
up on national cable, you saw buys that were almost exclusively targeted to
men," he says. "One of Bush's initial forays was to shore up his base. And
cable, with its niche networks, allows him to do that."
There's a more fundamental reason that both presidential candidates are
making cable a significant part of the 2004 campaign: Its share of the
television audience has been growing. Ad-supported cable accounts for about 57%
of the total-day audience this summer, according to the Cabletelevision
Advertising Bureau. That compares with just over 40% during the 2000
"The candidates have started their campaigns much earlier than in the
past. In the summer, you mostly have reruns, some fresh reality programming and
newsmagazines on broadcast," says Berkovitz. "Overall, the ratings are low. So
the advantage of broadcast over good network cable, like [Fox News']
The O'Reilly Factor and CNN, is very
Another plus for cable: There are more networks now than there were in
"Fox News Channel in the last four years has gone from a secondary news
provider to where it is today," says Mentzer, referring to the network's 300%
rating increase since 2000. "You see broadcast news numbers continue to
decline—and their audiences tend to be older."
Cable offers a third advantage over broadcast, at least on a national
basis. "Cable has all the plusses of radio," says Steve McMahon, co-founder of
McMahon, Squier and Associates and the political adviser and media consultant
to former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean. "It's less expensive
than broadcast, and you can precisely narrowcast to specific audiences. Cable
has the advantage of television, because it has pictures, but the cost benefit
of radio. So cable television makes enormous sense all the way around."
The economic advantages may account for the Bush campaign's dramatically
increased use of cable. Although Bush gave cable a miss in 2000, Nielsen
Monitor-Plus estimates his campaign ran about 2,700 spots on cable in the first
half of this year, compared with Kerry's 265.
Neither Bush nor Kerry campaign reps were available at press time. But
Bush campaign insiders claim the president could have won the popular and
electoral vote in 2000 had his campaign diverted money from local broadcast
stations in states where he was unlikely to win to cable.
"The fact is, they're now spending money on cable they could have spent
in states like California," says Tracey. "This way, the money is bringing them
media buys in battleground states, but at the same time, they're also reaching
the whole country. If something changes in states like California, they haven't
Indeed, Bush and Kerry's heavy spending on spot TV to sway voters in
swing states is striking.
But winning the election may depend on who does a better job of reaching
key demos. And there's one thing the candidates can agree on: cable.