In Depth

Iowa TV Stations Milk Millions From Political Ads

Corn isn’t the only thing growing tall in Iowa—so is spending on political TV advertising.

Four years after Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won a surprise victory in the state, propelling him to the Democ ratic presidential nomination, TV ad spending in Iowa’s 2008 race is breaking all records.

With the caucus date now officially set by both parties for Jan. 3 and the biggest push still coming, there are hints that political ads could rival Christmas ads in volume at least in some dayparts, station execs report. They say advertising in news programming even now is starting to tilt toward politics. That tilt could dramatically increase starting Nov. 19, when candidate ads under law start qualifying for the "lowest unit rate" for any ad for the time period.

Individually, as of Oct. 22, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., on the Democratic side and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the Re­pub­lican side have already equaled Sen. Kerry’s $2.6 million total state spending in the 2004 race. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s $1.9 million isn’t far behind. Sen. Hillary Clinton has spent $1.6 million and has been increasing her spending. Last week, former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Chris Dodd began running ads.

The numbers come from TNS Media Intelligence’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. CMAG contrasts the growth in Iowa with that in New Hamp­shire, where spending has shown a far smaller increase.

Day-to-day spending comparisons are even more dramatic. By Oct. 22, 2003, the Kerry campaign had spent $469,000 running against former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and ran most of its ads during the three weeks before the caucus. This year, with the Iowa caucuses moved up but nine weeks left to go, the top four spenders have each spent three to five times that much—and major buys are still to come from Edwards and several Republicans.
While the money they bring in is a boon to local stations, which have seen cuts in national automobile advertising, the political spots can present commercial trafficking woes because the candidate spots, by law, get preference.

"We are experiencing a considerable ramp-up in activity as we enter November and expect that activity to increase when the lowest-unit-charge window opens," said Steve Lake, national sales manager of Cedar Rapids Television-owned WCRG-TV, an ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He predicted some regular advertisers would have to be displaced to get political ads on the air.

Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns WOI-TV, the ABC affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, WCAU-TV, the ABC affiliate in Sioux City, Iowa, and WHBF-TV, the CBS affiliate in Rock Island, Ill. (the Quad Cities), said a quarter to a third of news availabilities already are being used by candidates, and sports availabilities also are being sought. "Four years ago there was one party. What makes this interesting is this time the caucuses are wide open," Mr. Cole said.

Ross Reardon, general sales manager of New York Times-owned WHO-TV, the NBC affiliate in Des Moines, said the number of political ads "is getting more disruptive [of regular advertising] as we move along."

He said the political campaigns first request space in news shows, but older-skewing shows and talk shows such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" are getting the bulk of the buying.

Mr. Cole expects a typical pattern of last-minute spending this time around and suggests it might be the only hope for stations trying to juggle Christmas and political ads. Already there has been some shifting of non-political ads out of news programming in order to accommodate political ads.

"Right now it’s active, but manageable," he said, noting that Christmas ad schedules typically let up around Dec. 20, leaving at least the last two weeks before the caucuses free for politics. "I don’t know how media outlets would have effectively managed if they had gone through with scheduling the caucuses in December."

Spokesmen for the candidates and some political ad executives attribute the spending to the extra importance of Iowa’s caucuses this time around, the need to introduce little-known candidates to voters early and the lack of campaign finance restrictions. Few candidates this time are accepting federal financing, which means they escape limits on state spending.

The consultants say the large number of states pushing their primaries forward next year has put a high premium on doing well early and getting momentum.
"Iowa has the first caucus, and we came into the race with a lower name identification than some of the other candidates," said Tom Reynolds, a Richardson spokesman. "One of the quickest ways to achieve the recognition was through TV advertising."

Jenn Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, said the campaign has put a lot of focus on the state, which is next to the senator’s home state of Illinois.
Political ad execs suggest the spending so far is nothing compared to what’s coming. They point in the direction of the Obama campaign, which has a lot of money on hand, but still has to break through in the polls.

"Everyone, except the frontrunner, will likely be forced to go ‘all-in’ with their media allocations during November and December, two of the most costly months to buy, in order to gain traction," said Marius Penczner, who handled Edwards’ ads last time and initially this time. "Particularly Barack Obama, since he has the resources to substantially outspend those below him.

"It’s possible that we may see very heavy spending by everyone from Thanksgiving until the end of the year—maybe at the highest levels in history for a single candidate," Mr. Penczner said.

Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, said the only thing that could hold back spending is availability.

Of course, the campaign spending has to be put in perspective.

Alex Castellanos of National Media, who does Mr. Romney’s ads, said, "Candidates are up on TV ad spending because there is tremendous interest on both sides. It is clear that this is an unusually important election. But we will still spend less choosing the leader of the free world at this critical time in our history than on car commercials."

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The calls cited for a couple of the stations above are incorrect -- KCRG-TV is the ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids. KCAU-TV is the ABC affiliate in Sioux City.

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