Political Ad Nauseam

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

During the evening news, dueling commercials offer two takes on Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. First, the Republican Senate candidate is depicted as wishy-washy. His normally handsome mug flips back and forth onscreen as the Democratic opposition rakes him over. (Turns out the dog's not even his!)

Then Steele's sister, Monica Turner, a doctor who suffers from multiple sclerosis, appears in a simple, compelling advertisement that defends his position on stem cell research.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Steele's foe, pops up in a blandly positive ad. So do the Virginia candidates seeking a U.S. Senate seat: Democratic challenger James Webb's smiling face is bathed in light; Republican Sen. George Allen grins, too, next to a big American flag in a wood-paneled office.

Now, multiply those spots by 100 or more. That's how often political ads are showing up on local TV channels every day as a heated campaign season draws to a close.

On Halloween, one week before the election, an independent monitor found that six Washington TV stations ran 23 half-minute campaign ads a total of 507 times. While kids were out trick-or-treating, the ads aired at least 40 times in expensive prime-time slots.

With the proliferation of cable channels and growing popularity of the Internet, it's getting harder to reach voters through TV ads. But that hasn't stopped candidates and their surrogates from throwing millions of dollars at the broadcast medium in a frenzied hunt for votes.

"Look, television is the biggest megaphone the campaigns have," said Evan Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, the political ad monitor, based in Arlington. "TV ads are the most efficient way to reach . . . voters they may not have reached doing retail politics."

The region has two competitive Senate races and a tight gubernatorial contest between Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Democrat Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's mayor. U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) also faces a sharp challenge from Democrat Judy Feder.

Since Maryland's Sept. 12 primary, candidates aired more than 15,000 ads in the Washington and Baltimore markets at a cost of nearly $18 million, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The two candidates for governor spent roughly the same, but Steele has significantly outspent Cardin, the analysis shows.

In Virginia, the Allen and Webb campaigns may spend more than $1 million each on ads in the final week, many of them airing in the Washington market. In addition, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has given Webb about $3.5 million for the last week of the campaign; the National Republican Senatorial Committee has given Allen about $1.5 million.

The region's campaign trails converge on Washington's airwaves.

Tracey's analysis found ads running on 68 programs on Halloween, not counting local newscasts. Wolf had the day's first, at 5:09 a.m., on WJLA (Channel 7) local news.

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