Does big ad spending matter if voters just tune it out?

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 21, 2010 

MESQUITE, Nev. — Candidates and outside interest groups are expected to spend at least $50 million in Nevada's 2010 federal election campaigns, mostly on advertising, but it's unclear how much that will influence the state's voters — if at all.

The targets of this spending spree, like those in other close races around the country, are the people who play golf at the Falcon Ridge Golf Club in this town of 25,000 northeast of Las Vegas. Or the folks who shop at the nearby Wal-Mart or hang out at the Stateline Casino, where many of the regulars are unemployed or retirees living on fixed incomes.

These Nevada voters will have a big say in the outcome of two of the nation's most closely watched races: The U.S. Senate contest between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Sharron Angle — polls show a dead heat — and the U.S. House of Representatives race for Nevada's 3rd Congressional District between Democratic incumbent Dina Titus and Republican Joe Heck.

Campaign ads help candidates influence voters, just as any advertising affects a consumer's view of a product, whether it's soap or cereal. Ads can boost a little-known product's visibility, and cement a product image in the consumer's mind. In politics, attack ads aim to plant a negative image.

Nevada's candidates are swamping the airwaves.

During the late news last Friday on top-rated Channel 8, the Las Vegas CBS affiliate, viewers saw 10 political ads during the 35-minute broadcast. They heard that Heck has "a lot of crazy ideas" and Titus supported the "Obama-Pelosi takeover of health care." They were told that Angle "voted to protect sex offenders" and Reid was a "champion of liberal special interests inside the Beltway."

Similar ads saturate the country, according to a Pew Research Center national survey released Thursday. Nearly nine in ten voters — 88 percent — said they'd seen or heard campaign commercials, and a majority — 56 percent — said they'd seen a lot.

Yet experts are divided on how much the barrage matters in elections.

"Companies spend billions of dollars on TV ads for a lot of things, and it seems unlikely that all of these advertisers are wrong," said Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who's the president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

On the other hand, in the final days before an election, nonstop advertising alienates a lot of voters, said Michael Malbin, the executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

"The remote control has a very important function of making ads less valuable," he said.

Attitudes at the Stateline Casino supported the points of both analysts. Voters had firm impressions of candidates, and of their ads, but how much the ads cause the impressions is impossible to measure.

Yes, some voters said, the commercials can raise questions about candidates, and since Reid has been a well-known senator for nearly 24 years, the ads inform voters more about the lesser-known Angle.

One point that Reid's anti-Angle ads have hammered is that she wants to privatize Social Security, for example.

Bob Kirkwood, an unemployed surgical technician, didn't know a lot about Angle, except this: "She wants to privatize Social Security," he said, and at age 64, that's not what he wants to hear.

Max Smith, a bricklayer, has seen lots of campaign ads and was adamant that Angle's not getting his vote. "She hasn't said one good thing that I know of," he said. "I'm not a Reid fan, but at least I get a sense he's trying to do something for the state."

A lot of voters have tuned out the ads.

"It's not going to matter in this election. People giving them all this money have one vote each, and the people who don't have the money also have one vote each," said Wally McClure, a retired teacher and farmer.

So far in this election cycle, Reid has raised an estimated $22 million, while Angle has raised about $17.9 million, including $14 million in the third quarter. In the House race, Titus has raised $2.1 million to Heck's $1.1 million.

Add to that money from independent groups, which can spend more freely on behalf of candidates this year thanks to a January Supreme Court decision. The Campaign Finance Institute estimates that through mid-October, the Titus-Heck race had attracted $3.5 million in non-candidate spending, split about evenly. Independent spending on the Senate race has totaled about $5.9 million, with spending that promotes Angle at about $4.2 million and for Reid, $1.7 million.

Some ads were clearly labeled as candidate-sponsored, but others were identified only by names that gave no clue to who was behind them. Among them: Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a group with links to George W. Bush's strategist Karl Rove; the American Action Network, a conservative group chaired by former Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman; and the First Amendment Alliance, a conservative group based in Alexandria, Va.

The proliferation of independent groups with vague names sponsoring commercials adds to voter confusion and alienation. The Pew survey found that voters are divided as to whether it's important to know who paid for campaign ads. More than half — 55 percent — said it was easy to tell who paid for the ads, and 32 percent said it was difficult.

"People are sick of the commercials. There's voter fatigue," said Louis DeSalvio, the assistant political director of the Las Vegas-based Laborers' Local 872.

However, in close races such as Nevada's, where each vote matters, the deluge will continue.

"Nobody would be spending this kind of money," Clark County public administrator John Cahill said, "if they didn't think it mattered."

ON THE WEB

Campaign Finance Institute report on campaign finance

Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies

American Action Network

Reid-Angle polls

CNN/Time/Opinion Research poll

Congressional re-election rates

Cook Political Report Senate race ratings

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball

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Tidal wave of outside money swamping 2010 elections

Supreme Court rolls back limits on corporate campaign spending

In Nevada, voters hold noses for both Senate candidates

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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