With much fanfare, the Republican National Committee launched radio ads earlier this week blasting 12 Democrats -- eight Senators and four House members -- for their support of the Affordable Care Act. “We’re asking voters to join us in making their New Year’s resolutions the same as ours: holding Democrats running in 2014 accountable for their dishonesty,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus of the ads. He also held a conference call with reporters to tout the ad buy, insisting "it’s in 40 markets. It’s real."
That depends on what your definition of "real" is. While the RNC wouldn't disclose how much money they spent on the radio ads, reports from local news organizations suggested it wasn't much. At all. In New Hampshire, the ads "savaging" Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) had $20 dollars behind them. Yes, $20. Not $2,000. Or $20,000. In Alaska, a single ad -- at the cost of $30! -- ran against Sen. Mark Begich (D), according to the Anchorage Daily News.
In case you live on some other planet, $50 doesn't get you all that much here on Earth when it comes to paid advertising. The RNC never had any intent of influencing actual voters through these ads, which virtually no one in any of the 12 targeted states and districts actually heard. Instead, this was a free media play; the RNC made a big deal out of its FIRST AD BUY OF 2014 -- and lots and lots of local (and even some national) media wrote about it. (The buys generated more than 100 stories.) Voila! The RNC got lots of people to know about the ads -- and the message in them -- for nothing or damn close to it. (To be clear, the Democratic National Committee tries to do the same things; something for nothing is, surprisingly enough, appealing in politics.)
The ads and, more importantly, the coverage they received are rightly viewed as a victory for the RNC. Not only did they get tons of coverage for a tiny expenditure but they were also able to signal to major -- and better funded -- outside conservative organizations who the prime targets should be and what the message to attack them should look and sound like. "One of the roles the party plays in this day and age is to set the tone," for other like-minded groups, explained one well-connected GOP operative about the RNC buy.
True enough. The blame for all of this doesn't lie at the RNC's feet. It lies at the feet of the media -- present company included -- whose voracious appetite for anything new allows this sort of manipulation to happen on a weekly and, as the election gets closer, daily, basis. The proliferation of web sites and news ventures dedicated to covering politics allows the RNC/DNC and every other political organization to search until they find someone -- and usually someones -- willing to take the bait.
There's no there there in the RNC buy. But, in covering it, we give it a life far larger and more real than the expenditure by the RNC deserves. And that's not the RNC's fault. It's our fault.