TV Ads Don't Vote: How Most Media Are Missing the Story of 2014

Michelle Nunn knocking doors in Georgia.

Michelle Nunn knocking doors in Georgia.

The DSCC is going dark in Kentucky! Democrats have given up on Alison Lundergan Grimes! 

According to the Beltway press, that's the big 2014 election news right now. And they're right on the facts, but wrong about what's happening in Kentucky and around the country. What's really going on is invisible to the mainstream media pundits, because they're not on the ground, in the field, actually looking at campaign operations in key states.

Those who are paint a very different picture.

In one important respect, the failure of the MSM to pick up on the untold story is good for the Democrats. The Republicans, for all their complaining about "liberal media bias," really believe the slop dished out by the Beltway press. And right now, they can practically taste victory in the Senate, because that vision is being promulgated by all the usual suspects. They keep pouring money into TV ads as if advertising dollars buy elections.

TV ads don't vote: voters vote. And Democrats are marshaling their resources where it counts, in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operations. You would think that after two successful Obama presidential campaigns that re-wrote the book on voter targeting and field operations, our media would actually cover this aspect of campaigning. But by ignoring it, they are lulling Republicans into an unearned sense of confidence.

In Kentucky, it is true that the DSCC shifted advertising dollars initially set aside for Grimes to other states. But to make the leap to claim Democrats have given up on her, as our dim media have reported, misses both the reason for that money move, and what Democrats are doing in Kentucky and elsewhere that matters more than TV ad buys.

First of all, the main reason why the DSCC is moving money from Kentucky to other states is because other Democrats need the money more than Grimes. She's reportedly sitting on $4 million dollars with less than a month to go, and the Kentucky media markets are less expensive than those in more populous states with more large cities.

Second, let's go to DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil for the rest of the story.

Dylan Scott at Talking Points Memo (one of the few political news sites that gets it right more often than not) gives a detailed look at what's happening on the ground in the contested state of Colorado. His post is titled "The Strategy Dems Are Betting Will Save Mark Udall -- And The Senate" and it's a must-read. I'll wait here while you read it...

OK, back? Now don't you feel better? Knowing that DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil personally experienced how field operations and GOTV carried Bennet to victory in Colorado certainly gives me more confidence in their 2014 game plan to hold the Senate.

We're at the point in the election cycle where TV ads make less of a difference than before. Most people have made up their minds about the candidates. What's important from now until Election Day is getting the people who support your candidate to vote. And this is where Democrats are focused.

The Democratic ground game includes special attention in areas that allow early voting, or those that make voting by mail easier. The more votes we can bank now, the less Election Day turnout controls the outcome. Michael P. McDonald took a close look at early voting in some key states and sees encouraging signs for Democrats. In California, where a large and growing population votes by mail, GOTV is conducted in waves. Right now, permanent absentee Democrats are being encouraged and reminded to mail in their ballots, and as Election Day grows closer, the focus shifts to in-person voters. Campaigns know which voters skipped 2010 but voted in 2012, and target them with messages stressing the importance of the mid-term elections.

It's not surprising that pundits, especially those who work in television, think TV ad spending is the key to winning elections. The revenue stream from that advertising keeps local stations afloat, and fills the coffers of the cable and satellite TV providers, who offer candidates the ability to insert geographically targeted ads in their national programming.

TV ads can help a newcomer erase some of the name recognition advantage of an incumbent, and frame the opponent in ways that make them less attractive to voters. They matter -- just not as much as direct contact with supporters and persuadable undecided voters.

In my district, most of the outside spending from Republicans has been hammering our Democratic incumbent on Obamacare, which is actually working very well here in California, and trying to blur the distinctions between the incumbent and the challenger in ways calculated to depress Democratic turnout.

But my incumbent defeated a long-time GOP representative in 2012 with strong field operations supported by the DCCC, which gave him the ability to spend money on paid field staffers to keep the ground game humming whether or not volunteers actually showed up to help.

Let the pundits and Republicans count TV ad dollars and convince themselves the GOP is winning right up until Election Day. And there's nothing more important you can do than volunteer between now and November for your local Democratic candidates.

If you'll excuse me, I need to go complete my ballot now and get it in the mail so I have time to volunteer on Election Day. 



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