SACRAMENTO – Just as Californians make their New Year’s resolutions, they will start seeing a barrage of television advertisements featuring candidates making pledges of their own.
More money was spent on political ads last year in California than any other state, and analysts predict a record-shattering blitz in the coming statewide election year.
Two wealthy Republican gubernatorial primary contenders are prepared to pour tens of millions of dollars into beaming their message into voters’ homes. And incumbent Gov. Gray Davis will roll out ads in January, though he won’t face a challenger at the polls for 11 months.
“The average Californian will have an easier time avoiding Regis Philbin than any of the candidates for governor next year,” said Republican campaign consultant Dan Schnur.
Television spots form the backbone of America’s political campaign. In California, ads are seen as critical to reach voters in its diverse and sprawling communities.
Candidates, political parties and interest groups spent an estimated $1 billion on ads in the United States in 2000 — more than quadruple that spent in 1980, said Paul Taylor, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Better Campaigns.
Some 1.2 million political commercials ran on 484 local television stations nationwide in 2000, according to the Virginia-based Campaign Media Analysis Group.
In California in 2000, an estimated $127 million was spent on 119,492 political ads — by far the most of any other state, according to the group. New York ranked second — with about $91 million spent on 74,698 ads.
“There’s no other state like California, it is far and away the most expensive media state in the country,” Taylor said.
Critics say the proliferation of television-based campaigns favors the wealthy or those backed by special interests. Others argue ads are an efficient way to deliver a candidate’s message because it is difficult to compete for space in newspapers and on news broadcasts.
The nation’s most populous state — stretching hundreds of miles from Oregon to Mexico — poses a unique challenge for political candidates. From its coastal enclaves, college towns and ski villages to its farms, technology centers and Hollywood — the voters are as diverse as the geography.
But television touches the entire state, and “there’s no way to meet 32 million people one-at-a-time, so the only way to reach them is over the airwaves,” said Schnur, the consultant who worked on former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan’s campaign earlier this year.
To do that, however, a campaign must spend millions of dollars to cover the state’s five major media markets. They include pricey Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento, San Diego and Fresno. Also, there are dozens of smaller-but-critical markets, including key pockets of voters in the inland valleys.
Airing a commercial to reach all of the major markets for a week can cost between $1 million and $2 million.
For two of the Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for governor, ads will start in January, campaign advisers said. Riordan and investor Bill Simon are both multimillionaire businessman with campaign treasuries plump with political contributions.
The third, Secretary of State Bill Jones, has struggled to raise money and will be unable to match his opponents in a televised ad war.
And then there is Davis.
The Democrat spent $25 million on television, radio and cable advertising to win in 1998, including $4.5 million in the 10 days before the general election. Of his 2002 campaign, strategist Garry South said, “I assume we’ll spend more, this will be a more expensive campaign.”
Davis will have “a full media campaign,” including television ads, starting in January, although he has no primary opponent, South said.
Davis anticipates the three Republicans will spend much of their time attacking Davis, South said. Already, Jones, Riordan and Simon have criticized Davis on a number of fronts.
They “apparently want to make their mark in the primary by using the governor as a punching bag,” South said.
Davis’ early response doesn’t surprise many political strategists. The governor has weathered a tough 2001 dominated by a statewide energy crisis and a looming $12 billion shortfall.
His popularity dipped to an all-time low in the summer and has yet to recover, even when lawmakers across the country are enjoying boosts since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
During the summer, a group funded by energy companies and headed by a Republican political operative, the Washington, D.C.-based American Taxpayer Alliance, ran television ads attacking Davis’ energy policy and ending with the phrase “Grayouts from Gray Davis.”
Davis countered with a string of radio ads detailing what he was doing to try to pull the state out of the crisis.
For California voters, the summer volley of ads was only the beginning. Bruce Newman, a professor at Chicago’s DePaul University who has written several books on political marketing, said voters need to wade through the spots for substance.
“They are targeted toward people’s emotions and the personality of the candidate and tend to gloss over the issues,” he said. “Scrutinize the source and be careful to listen to all sides.”