Despite the distraction in California, the presidential race is on in Iowa and New Hampshire, with increasing expenditures of candidates' time and money.
As the candidates blanket state fairs and make house calls for the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, early TV buys by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and North Carolina U.S. Senator John Edwards have gotten the TV advertising portion of the campaign off to the earliest start in anyone's memory.
"It's already hitting the state," said Rick Lipps, general manager at KWWL(TV) in Iowa's second-largest market, Cedar Rapids. "We've never had any real action before the fall."
Dean was first to buy in New Hampshire and got started even earlier in Iowa with a reported $300,000 buy covering about a week of 30-second spots across the state.
"We were surprised when Dean started spending as early as he did. Last time, there was no political at all spending until August," said Paul Fredericksen, general manager at the news leader in Des Moines, KCCI(TV).
Much of New Hampshire falls into the vast Boston market, DMA No. 6, where Dean is already purchasing time. WMUR-TV Manchester, N.H., provides a more directed buy, as well as 28 hours of newscasts a week. Both Dean and Edwards have purchased "sizable" schedules there, easily costing thousands a day, insiders say.
"It's been a good thing for us," said WMUR-TV General Manager Jeff Bartlett, noting that summertime usually brings less demand. Viewership as well as rates will rise toward the end of the year.
"We didn't expect to see much until October," says Ed Goldman, general manager of WBZ-TV Boston, where Dean has made some buys. He expects that there will be a lot more coming after Labor Day. A well-placed political buy at a Boston station could bring as much as $4,000 per 30-second spot by the end of the year. Sources say that ad today would cost $2,500-$3,000.
How lucrative the campaign will be for the New England or Midwest stations will ultimately be determined by factors yet to be determined, including the absence of pre-convention competition on the Republican side. For stations in politically rich Beantown, though, elections mean money. Stations there reaped $40 million-plus in a record-shattering 2002 because of a number of contentious statewide races. And not only is the New Hampshire advertising kicking in early, but there's always next year, when the general election occurs.
In 1999, New Hampshire's primary funneled most of the more than $9 million spent to Boston stations during the last half of that year and first quarter 2000, according to Television Bureau of Broadcasting analysis of CMR numbers.
In Iowa, where the number of voters is far smaller, the caucus brought in $1.4 million in TV ads in the state's largest market, DMA 72 Des Moines.
"I definitely think this will top all previous spending," said Iowa media and politics watcher and Wartburg College professor Jeff Stein. But, he cautioned, "the evolution to campaigning on television works well in the primary states. Whether it works well in a caucus state remains to be seen. Typically, voters in Iowa want to meet the candidates."
That works in New Hampshire as well. In 2000, Sen. John McCain spent more time there and beat George Bush, who spent more money. WNDS(TV) Derry, N.H., News Director Alicia Preston remembers reporting in 2000 the story of a Harrisburg, Pa., couple who visited the state intent on meeting the next president. After two weeks, they had met all the candidates.