Candidates Vie For Eyeballs In NC Tossups

By Neil Cotiaux, posted Oct 7, 2016
(Illustration by Harry Blair)

"Huge” is a word that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump often employs, and in the battleground state of North Carolina it’s an apt description of the yawning gap between the amount of money that he and his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, have spent on advertising.

Across The Tar Heel State and in individual TV markets like Wilmington, the two have sparred electronically over jobs, immigration and temperament. But Trump continues to be substantially outspent. 

In the state’s hotly contested gubernatorial race, buys of broadcast advertising by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democrat, are much more competitive.

Meantime, all four candidates as well as a variety of down-ballot contenders have stepped up their use of social media. 

Clinton, all-in

With Trump and Clinton in a dead heat in September, the former secretary of state’s campaign enjoyed a comfortable cushion of television time. 

TV and radio stations are required to send records of political advertising buys to the Federal Communications Commission. The ads that blanket the airwaves come on top of print advertisements, emails directly to supporters and the time-tested, ubiquitous mailers that flood mailboxes this time of year. 

By mid-July, Clinton, along with some Super PACs, had booked a total of $11.7 million of in-state advertising through the fall, according to an analysis by the trade publication Advertising Age in conjunction with Kantar Media and its Campaign Media Analysis Group. With 6.7 million N.C. voters now registered, the ad buys from Clinton and her allies translate to about $1.75 per voter. 

Trump, who self-funded his primary campaign, only aired his first commercial in late August as general election donations poured in.

As the fall campaign began, Team Clinton’s statewide buys in the first week of September totaled $1.3 million while Team Trump’s total stood at $361,000, according to Advertising Analytics.  

“Hillary Clinton is doing what we would expect any presidential candidate would do in the mass media age,” said Aaron King, assistant professor in the department of public and international affairs at University of North Carolina Wilmington. As for Trump, “If we could win spending less money, then let’s spend less money,” King suggests he may have thought.

Trump was being significantly outspent on Wilmington’s WWAY-TV, said Andrew Combs, the station’s general manager, with the Clinton campaign purchasing $100,860 in spots from Aug. 1 into November while the real estate mogul had committed just $19,300 on ads for September with no money put down beyond that, as of Sept. 26.  “It’s very unusual,” Combs said.

At WECT-TV, Clinton’s front-end buys stood at $271,000 from July through September and Trump, $72,000, said Mark Mendenhall, the general sales manager. 

Combs and Mendenhall believe that third-party super PACs may become much more active in buying time if the presidential race remains nip-and-tuck in October. 

“That’s when the PACs come to play more,” Mendenhall said. But, because “Wilmington has tended to lean red” and competition for votes may be fiercer in larger urban markets, bigger last-minute buys may occur there, he added.

By the time the votes are in, Clinton and Trump will probably have spent a total of $1.3 million on buys with the Cape Fear Region’s NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates, Mendenhall estimated.

Gubernatorial spending

With Cooper breathing down McCrory’s neck through September, TV may be helping to keep that race competitive.

In the period Aug. 19 – Sept. 15, a total of 11,000 ads carrying a cost of almost $6 million were aired statewide by McCrory and Cooper, with Cooper airing about 1,600 more ads, according to the Wesleyan University Media Project. Prior to mid-August, Democratic TV buys stood at $5.6 million for 8,809 ads, compared to $2 million for 6,094 ads on behalf of the governor. 

In Wilmington, the McCrory campaign was spending about $10,000 per week on WECT through September while Cooper was spending up to $16,000 per week at times, according to Mendenhall. Now, “With McCrory, it has gotten much more steady,” he noted.

With Cooper spending more than a well-known governor to define himself, “The ads are more effective for the challenger,” UNCW’s King believes.

And while a study by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity showed that proxy groups for McCrory and Cooper were spending “more than 47 times as much on political ads as the candidates,” PAC spending has been fairly soft at WECT. “We’re not looking at a ton of gubernatorial-based PAC spending,” Mendenhall said, signaling that proxy spending could escalate if the race remains tight.

Coming down the finish line, “Increasingly, what you see is that candidates are leaving it to outside jobs to do the dirty work,” King said. 

Micro-targeting online

While Trump keeps blasting out tweets, using a host of social media platforms provides federal, state and local campaigns with a robust alternative to more costly TV advertising.

“I think that’s a huge piece of essential media,” New Hanover County GOP Chairman Michael Franklin said of social media. “Now, everyone from someone’s 8-year-old child to grandmother uses Facebook.”

While candidates for president and governor generally have solid name identification, social media can help build their brand identity through visually rich postings on YouTube, Instagram and other platforms without requiring viewers to wade through heavy text, he continued. “It’s an easier way to disseminate your actual message,” Franklin believes.

For regional candidates with more limited name recognition and tighter budgets, selective advertising may boost their chances, King suggested, citing ads by state Senate candidate Andrew Barnhill. 

But this year and beyond, using paid media to persuade voters may prove a bit more difficult as a growing number of them refuse to be “pigeonholed,” said Franklin.

The number of voters who register as “unaffiliated” is increasing both in New Hanover County and across the state, said Derek Bowman, the county’s board of elections director. According to data on the N.C. State Board of Elections website, the number of Democratic and Republican registrants statewide has declined since 2012 while the ranks of the unaffiliated have risen by more than one-quarter million.

Both parties are trying to take nothing for granted.

The Clinton campaign, which has established about 30 field offices statewide, is coordinating with local party offices, said Richard Poole, chairman of the New Hanover County Democratic Party. A similar approach is being taken by Republicans, with almost a dozen Republican National Committee offices in the state, said Kara Carter, the RNC’s state communications director.  

In the end, broadcast advertising is an inexact science, King posited, with an unknown number of viewers forming their final impressions from a wealth of channels to watch – or not watch – and the possibility that a negative ad could backfire.

So while the battle of the airwaves is important, King said, “It’s about getting people out to vote … voting hinges more on a face-to-face than an ad.”

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