The cacophony starts before the first light of dawn, like an agitated rooster. It doesn't quit until after the last bar in this hardworking town has stopped serving.
"I'm George W. Bush and I approved this message."
"John Kerry offers a fresh start . . . "
"I'm not a big fan of Bush, but what's Kerry gonna do for me?"
Just about anywhere Toledoans turn their television dials these days, another commercial for the presidential campaign is on the screen. They interrupt "Jeopardy!" and "The Bachelor," the soap operas and the 6 o'clock news. A curiosity when they began to trickle onto the air back in March, the ads now tumble forth in a relentless parade of persuasion.
Between March and late September, 14,273 commercials about the presidential race aired on Toledo's four leading TV stations, according to the ad tracking firm TNSI/Campaign Media Analysis Group of Arlington. That number makes this smokestack city at the western tip of Lake Erie the epicenter of the presidential air wars; Toledo ranks as the most advertised-to market of any in the big battleground states.
The city's elevated profile has something to do with its cross-border locale -- TV signals here lap over into southern Michigan, another swing state -- but it is mostly because of Toledo's prominence in the heated battle for Ohio's 20 electoral votes. The city is the urban center of northwestern Ohio, which could be the most closely contested region in this critical swing state.
Although Toledo and surrounding Lucas County are reliably Democratic, the 12-county area reached by the city's TV stations is not. President Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore in this part of the state by about 17,000 votes in 2000, 50 percent to 46 percent. Republicans are counting again on the surrounding rural counties, such as Williams and Defiance by the Indiana line, to offset Democratic strength among unionized workers and African Americans closer to town.
Both sides learned some lessons about the value of advertising four years ago. Behind in the polls by double digits, Gore turned off the ad spigot and stopped making campaign appearances in Ohio in early October, effectively ceding the state to Bush. The Democrats lost Ohio all right -- but by just 3.6 percentage points statewide.
The experience left Democrats and Republicans alike with a profound sense of "what if" and a determination not to take anything for granted this time. "You're seeing everything both sides have in Toledo," said Jim Ruvolo, chairman of Kerry's Ohio campaign. "No one's holding anything back."
It certainly did not appear there was any holding back to anyone tuning in earlier this month, when political ads were as thick as rush-hour traffic, even at non-rush hours. Candidate spots often run back-to-back on programs here, with a Kerry ad followed by a Bush ad followed by a Kerry ad. During "13 Action News" at 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the Democratic National Committee, the Kerry campaign and the Bush campaign peppered viewers with a total of six commercials during one 19-minute stretch.
This has certainly been good news for Toledo's depressed local economy, or at least for the four TV stations that are broadcasting almost all of the commercials. Spending on political spots in Toledo will surpass $8 million between July and Election Day, estimated Mary Gerken, general sales manager of WTVG, the city's ABC station. This is about three times the total during the entire 2000 campaign, she said. (The Bush and Kerry campaigns declined to discuss their expenditures in detail.)
The messages flying over the airwaves go all over the political map. One Bush commercial features a series of clips of Kerry taking seemingly contradictory positions on the Iraq war -- here saying it was the "wrong war," there saying the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and again saying, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion [to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan] before I voted against it." One of Kerry's ads does triple duty: He attacks the war's cost, promises to "stop at nothing" to get the terrorists and then says he'll "fight for a stronger middle class."
The "I'm not a big fan of Bush" ad comes not from Kerry or the DNC but from the anti-Bush Media Fund, one of several independent "527" organization that have been plying Ohio's airwaves since just after the beginning of the year. The commercial features a middle-age man in a hard hat whose question ("but what's Kerry gonna do that's different?") is answered by a narrator. "For 20 years, John Kerry has fought for jobs," the narrator says. ". . . Under Bush-Cheney, Ohio has lost 230,000 jobs while they give no-bid contracts to Halliburton."
"Halliburton," the hard-hat guy repeats glumly.
David Davis, a political science professor at the University of Toledo, said all the advertising has the same motive: to sway undecided voters and to spur the faithful to show up on Election Day. But he noted that advertising can do only so much in a political campaign. Organizational work such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, as well as day-to-day developments in the campaign count, too, Davis said.
Indeed, the ad barrage raises an obvious question: Is anyone being persuaded by all of this?
In some ways, it is almost irrelevant in Toledo. Ruvolo acknowledges there is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy driving the air wars here: Both sides feel they have to have ads on the air simply because the other guy has his ads on the air. "It is kind of an arms race," he said, a bit sheepishly.
Toledoans interviewed in random encounters on downtown streets generally express fatigue -- and a bit of bewilderment -- about what they're seeing on their TV screens. Walking into the Lucas County courthouse on a sunny fall afternoon, James King, 64, an executive with a health management company, offered the jaded view. "We're kind of sick of them," he said. "It seems like they've been going on forever. I really think it's turning everyone off. When you see as many negative ads as we've seen, you have to believe that it's turning more people off than getting people excited about the election."
King described himself as "a ticked-off conservative" who is leaning toward Kerry. But his choice wasn't shaped by any messages he has picked up from a few thousand political ads. "I'm alarmed at what has happened to the conservative agenda under this president," he said. "The deficit is a disaster. I deplore this war. The government has gotten bigger, not smaller. [Bush] has injured the party and its ideals."
Over on Adams Street, Najie Olive, the owner of Ranya's restaurant, still is not sure which way he is voting. The ads, he said, have not been especially helpful. "It's pretty much tit for tat," he said. "It's like a teeter-totter. They just keep swinging back and forth. . . . I guess I haven't really become tired of it. I'm just immune to it."
A block away, by a statue of native son William McKinley, the assassinated 25th president, teacher Rick Buss was asked whether he can remember any of the TV commercials he has seen. Buss, 54, thinks hard for a moment, holding his hand to his forehead. "Oh, boy," he said finally, stumped. "There's just so many of them that they kind of blur together. The average person can't differentiate who's saying what. It's very confusing."
In fact, the most memorable ad for Sara Agocs, 25, has been "the one President Bush did attacking John Kerry's service in Vietnam. It seemed very unfair to me." Informed that the ad was aired by an independent group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and not the Bush campaign, Agocs seems surprised.
"See, I didn't know that," she said. "All these independent agencies. I don't know what's coming from who."
Yet even if the sources of the ads and the messages are somewhat indistinct, Buss and Agocs can identify the general themes each side is promoting -- that Kerry (according to the Bush campaign) has taken inconsistent positions on many issues and thus cannot be trusted, and that Bush (according to Kerry) has mismanaged the war in Iraq and the economy and does not deserve another four years.
It's not much, but both sides hope it's enough come Election Day.