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How to Blow a Cool Million

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Perhaps a primer on the dynamics of voter awareness is in order.  In a recent PolitickerNJ story where I was quoted, some commenters seem to think that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono’s reported million dollar ad buy was money well spent – or at the very least was something she needed to do.

I disagree.  While $1 million may sound like a lot, it will result in very little penetration among New Jersey voters.  For one, advertising on broadcast television in either the New York City or Philadelphia markets means that more than two-thirds of your audience cannot even vote for you.

More importantly, a single shot weeklong to ten day media buy – which is what $1 million will get you on broadcast TV – will not increase voter awareness when your statewide name recognition is below 30%. It takes about three weeks of repeated airings to start moving that needle.  And then you have to maintain the ad presence or your gains in awareness will evaporate once you pull your ads.

Think I’m wrong?  Then tell me what you had for dinner last Thursday night?  The same principle applies here.  Voters who do not know Senator Buono have not tuned into the campaign and will not tune in until the fall.  They are simply not paying attention yet.  That’s the reality.

Now, some say Buono had to go up with an ad because incumbent Chris Christie’s campaign already went negative on her.  [Ironically, these attacks may be doing more to raise Buono’s name recognition than anything she’s been able to do.]

The political adage is don’t let an attack go unchallenged.  However, her opening spot is not a response to the Christie attack on her as a “Corzine Democrat.”  It’s an introductory piece.

As a biographical ad, it’s actually pretty good (as is the web ad about the pronunciation of her last name).  But, as I already mentioned, a $1 million dollar broadcast buy in May will not move her poll numbers.

[Of course, one possibility is that we are being misled by the Buono camp about actual amount of the buy as a way to get some free media coverage.  If so, then kudos to them!]

Another point that has been raised to defend the ad buy is that Buono has a pot of money that must be spent on her primary race – such that it is.  This is true, but it does not have to be spent on advertising.  For example, she can spend her primary money building a GOTV infrastructure.

As we just saw in the presidential race, a coordinated micro-targeting effort can confound the polls.  Buono’s camp can be using her resources to identify Democratic and unaffiliated voters who can be motivated to turn up at the polls or to switch their support to her.  This effort can ostensibly be done for the June primary, but the real target would be the general election in November.

[UPDATE: Thanks to a party chair for emailing me on a point of law.  While New Jersey’s public financing law allows you to use matching funds to buy lists, you can’t use those funds to “mine” the data.  Still, in a media environment like New Jersey direct mail and radio may give you more lasting impact.  Still, I acknowledge the money has to be spent by June 4 and TV is certainly the best way to go through it quickly.  But then, we have to question whether Buono can “afford” an introductory ad, or whether she needs to attack right out of the box.  Campaign operatives do not like to mix those messages, but when you’re down by 30 points is “traditional” the best approach?]

One question is whether Buono will have the kind of money she needs to increase her name recognition in the fall.  Democratic donors and operatives got spoiled by the last governor and aren’t used to having to support gubernatorial campaigns.

Her best bet has always been to get that money from a national donor base. It is one of the reasons she has been talking about guns, marriage equality, and women‘s health care.  These issues are not on New Jersey voters’ radar screens, but they are for national Democrats.

However, very little of Buono’s campaign pot has come from donors in other states.  This is partly due to poor message framing during the free national media opportunities she has been given (mainly MSNBC).

Buono has gotten a little sharper on the stump recently, e.g. saying Christie is taking positions on issues like guns to appeal to voters in Midwestern cornfields rather than New Jersey suburbs.  But the message lacks clarity and coherence.

The problem is confounded by the fact that Buono will need to pivot to a New Jersey-based message after the primary.  While she still needs to court the national money with social issue messages, New Jersey voters are concerned about bread and butter matters.

Buono has been talking about New Jersey’s economic picture not being as rosy as Christie claims.  But she hasn’t developed a clear statement about one thing she would do to make the state more affordable.

The conventional wisdom says that laying out a specific policy can be dangerous.  But that only applies if you have a realistic shot of winning.  The goal for Buono is not to win but to lose well.  And that requires being bold.  Otherwise, she just spent $1 million to spit into the wind.

And if you think I’m wrong, here’s a challenge:  I’ll provide pre and post polling services to anyone out there who wants to spend $1 million on TV advertising to boost his or her own name recognition.  I guarantee the needle won’t move for you either.