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Spending on TV Political Ads Soars

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Nearly 500 seats in Congress and 36 governorships are on the ballot in Tuesday's elections. It's estimated that well over $2 billion will be spent on television campaign advertising this year. That's by far the most ever spent in a midterm or a presidential year. A lot of those ads are just now hitting the airwaves, as the campaign comes to a close.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik finds that many of the last minute appeals rely on histrionics and humor.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You can tell you're at a pivotal point of the campaign when the announcers start to use a really scary voice. Okay, they do it a lot better than that.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: Our enemies crash planes into buildings. They cut off heads. And if they get nuclear weapons, they will use them on us.

FOLKENFLIK: That's a new one in Pennsylvania, showing American cities going up in flames. The ad is sponsored by a group trying to help a Republican struggling to win re-election.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: Senator Rick Santorum is leading the effort to prevent a nuclear Iran.

FOLKENFLIK: It's a traditional Republican rallying cry, labeling Democrats as weak on national security issues. But public opinion has made the war in Iraq a vulnerability for the GOP, so now batting in their half of the inning comes the Democrats.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: On November 7th, should we send George Bush a message? That's not enough, because George Bush doesn't listen...

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Because Jon Kyl votes for what George Bush wants.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #3: What does it mean that George Allen sides with George Bush 96 percent of the time?

FOLKENFLIK: Zoinks! Those ads are arriving in Rhode Island, Arizona and Virginia, respectively, all paid for by a Democratic campaign fund targeting Senate seats in those states.

Mr. EVAN TRACEY (TNS Media Intelligence): It's really an effort by Democrats to nationalize this election and really try and galvanize their supporters around Bush. And the way that they can, you know, really do that with the loudest megaphone is to do it with their campaign advertising.

FOLKENFLIK: Evan Tracey is the chief operating officer for TNS Media Intelligence, a consulting firm that tracks television ads for candidates and parties on both sides of the divide. Tracey says airtime is so tight in some hard-fought congressional districts that it's hard to find any other kind of advertising on the air this weekend. Nielsen Monitoring Plus says there were more than 943,000 political ads broadcast on television just between August 1st and October 15th, so that doesn't even capture these last few weeks, when Evan Tracey says the ads from the candidates, their parties and their surrogates not only become more numerous but more intense.

Mr. TRACEY: Their pivoting back to their strength. In other words, it's, you know, change, change, change if you're a Democrat, and its liberal taxes, taxes if you're a Republican.

FOLKENFLIK: Deep in the heart of Texas, things aren't so tough for Republican governor Rick Perry, who appears to be fending off his opponents with relative ease. Perry's most recent television campaign ads include a positive spot praising his record. Then there's his new radio ad against the Democratic candidate, former congressmen Christopher Bell, which plays off a beer commercial singing the praises of dubious accomplishments.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #4: Presenting...

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) The real Washington's liberal...

Unidentified Man #4: Today we salute you, Mr. Way Too Liberal for Texas guy.

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Mr. Way Too Liberal for Texas guy.

Unidentified Man #4: Only you, Chris Bell, could vote for higher taxes ten times in Congress...

FOLKENFLIK: No, wait, seriously, you want to hear this next part.

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Don't ask, don't tell...

Unidentified Man #4: And you voted to let the United Nations oversee elections in America because no one stands up for democracy like the French.

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing in French)

FOLKENFLIK: A similar commercial targeting Texas independent candidate Carole Strayhorn got under her skin. Perry spokesman Ted Royer loves that.

Mr. TED ROYER (Perry Spokesman): That one has only been in the Internet, and the fact that she's now been talking about it for three days is to a lot of folks I think the funniest part of the ad.

FOLKENFLIK: But the Democrats aren't abandoning the field of humor.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #6: (As Chris Chocola) Hi. You've reached Congressman Chocola. I'm on the golf course today. Leave a message.

FOLKENFLIK: That wasn't embattled Indiana Republican congressman Chris Chocola, who's in danger of losing his seat on Tuesday. And the next voice you hear doesn't belong to President Bush.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #6: (As President Bush) Hey there, Chocola. Thought I'd say thank you. That's what a president does. You know, Chocola, the tax breaks you voted for big oil and gas...

FOLKENFLIK: Democrats seem increasingly confident they'll take back the House, thanks in part to ads like these tying Republicans to Mr. Bush. Here's Sarah Feinburg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Ms. SARAH FEINBURG (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee): I think the last count was that we had run more than 90 ads in more than 35 districts that included footage or words or a comparison to the president.

FOLKENFLIK: So two billion dollars later, here's to you, Mr. and Ms. Campaign Consultant Person, here's to you. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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