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    Money Talks
    The Bogeyman Unmasked: TV in the '98 Senate Races

    By Dwight Morris
    Special to washingtonpost.com
    Monday, Dec. 7, 1998

    There's a popular myth that broadcast advertising is to blame for the skyrocketing cost of campaigns, but the simple truth is that most Senate races – like most House races – are not terribly competitive. In 1998, 60 percent of all Senate incumbents and three-quarters of all House incumbents won 60 percent or more of the vote. And while 1998 saw some of the most expensive Senate races in recent memory, a burning need for more air time was hardly the only culprit in most contests.

    Big Media Contests

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    Illinois
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    Kentucky
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    North Carolina
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    Compulsive Spending?

    Louisiana
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    Alaska
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    Hawaii
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    Vermont
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    Election Results

    The percentages may shift slightly, but the basic numbers have changed little over the past four election cycles. Through mid-October, Senate incumbents seeking reelection in 1998 allocated 44 percent of their total spending to television and radio advertising – an impressive sum, given their high probability of victory.

    However, the staggering $15.4 million advertising blitz unleashed by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) accounted for 28 percent of all of the money Senate incumbents spent on broadcast ads. Exclude his numbers and the average drops to 39 percent. Typical Senate incumbents in the 1992, 1994 and 1996 election cycles spent just over 40 percent on TV and radio spots.

    And except for a few high-profile, well-funded candidates, typical challengers spent far less than 50 percent of their budgets on broadcast advertising. Through Oct. 14, 11 of the 26 Senate challengers earmarked 12 percent or less of their total spending for television and radio ads. Little more than two weeks before the election, challengers devoted a median of 30 percent of their total spending to commercials.

    In Some Races, Myth Holds True
    Yet in some races, that mythical appetite for ads did drive campaign costs. In fact, anyone convinced that every successful politician raises money to pour it into TV and radio advertising can find plenty of evidence in the 1998 Senate contests in New York, Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina.

    New York: This race was a textbook example of popular thinking about ads. D'Amato (R) spent $15.4 million through mid-October – 70 percent of his $22 million budget – on television and radio advertising. Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer countered with a hefty $10.7 million broadcast campaign, which accounted for a staggering 79 percent of his $13.4 million budget.

    Illinois: Republican state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald spent $10.2 million of his own money in his $12.3 million effort to oust Democratic incumbent Carol Moseley-Braun, and as a result poured $8.5 million into broadcast spots. Moseley-Braun managed to sink just $1.1 million into TV and radio ads – $236,075 less than she had spent on her lawyers and accountants (see June 1998 Money Talks).

    Kentucky: In his quest for this open Senate seat, Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler spent $1.3 million on broadcast advertising – 57 percent of his $2.3 million budget. Two weeks prior to the election, Republican Rep. Jim Bunning spent $1.7 million, or 66 percent of his $2.5 million campaign treasury, on commercials.

    North Carolina: Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth spent $7.9 million through mid-October, $4.4 million (55 percent) of which funded broadcast advertising. Democrat John Edwards, who also had the luxury of self-financing much of his bid, invested 68 percent of his $6.4 million budget – $4.3 million – in commercials.

    Goliath v. David: Big Spending for Small Competition
    However, while exciting, these races were not the norm in 1998, and they would not have been the norm in 1996, 1994 or 1992. For every Schumer-D'Amato matchup that feeds conventional wisdom about modern campaigns there was at least one contest like Louisiana, where Democrat John Breaux won reelection by a 2-to-1 margin over Republican state Rep. Jim Donelon.

    Louisiana: Breaux faced no Republican opposition when he won a second term in 1992, and the situation improved only slightly for the GOP in 1998. Through Oct. 14, Donelon spent an anemic $310,712 on his entire campaign, devoting just $26,486 to broadcast advertising.

    Against this token opposition, Breaux spent $2.9 million, sinking $714,265 (25 percent) into commercials. Breaux paid $936,305 in overhead expenses for the six-year election cycle, including $278,431 on staff salaries and $269,094 on travel. Through mid-October Breaux spent $80,412 on his telephone bills – more than three times as much as Donelon spent on ads.

    Alaska: Republican incumbent Frank Murkowski faced Democrat Joe Sonneman, who spent a total of just $11,964. Roughly two weeks before the election Sonneman devoted only $1,691 to advertising, spending $792 to produce and air his commercials. His expenditure reports include a $2.84 bill to "clean campaign tie," $21 for "haircut for TV," which is listed among his broadcast costs, and a $4.68 "lunch for webmaster."

    Murkowski, who was essentially unopposed, spent just $661,534 on his 55-point victory, only 18 percent of which went to broadcast advertising. Murkowski spent $121,460 on his commercials through mid-October – nearly $200,000 less than he spent on basic office overhead. In addition, Murkowski's fund-raising costs exceeded his broadcast advertising outlays by nearly $4,000, and his expenditures on constituent gifts and constituent entertainment totaled more than twice Sonneman's entire campaign budget.

    Alabama: Republican Richard Shelby easily won a third term, and two weeks before the election, he still had not spent even $1 on broadcast advertising. While his opponent, Democrat Clayton Suddith, spent just $13,521 overall, Shelby disposed of $1.4 million. He donated $524,115 of his treasury to other Republican candidates and party organizations, including $500,000 to the Alabama GOP, and spent $488,624 on basic overhead expenses.

    While six incumbents seeking reelection in 1998 devoted 50 percent or more of their campaign budgets to television and radio advertising, 12 spent less than 33 percent of their budgets on commercials, including nine who spent less than 25 percent. For some incumbents, even this modest investment in broadcast advertising was overkill. Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) each faced challengers who spent less than $5,000. Yet together, these three incumbents spent $1.2 million on TV and radio spots through Oct. 14, which accounted for 27 percent of their total outlays.

    The Moral
    In sports, the best coaches know that it's unnecessary to expend too many resources when their team outclasses their opponents. But this year's Senate races seem to suggest that in politics, the name of the game is to spend as much as you raise – regardless of the circumstances.

    © Copyright 1998 Campaign Study Group

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