The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote yesterday about how television advertising is dropping dramatically as a key battle front in America’s political campaigns. He joined me on today’s show to elaborate on the sea change in messaging facing campaign consultants.
HH: I am joined by the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. He’s the author of the wonderful book, Collision 2012, which you’ve heard me say many times the best book about the campaign just ended. Hello, Dan, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you.
DB: Thank you. Same to you, Hugh.
HH: Another snowed in day in Washington. Did you make it to the Post today? Or are you working from home?
DB: Well, I was out of town and so flew back. I was out in Tucson over the weekend. They have a wonderful book festival there, and my wife and I were out there talking about Collision 2012 and seeing some old friends. And we flew back today into snowy Washington. So we can’t get a break here.
HH: Well, the green water is flowing in front of the White House, but the pictures are pretty amazing. Dan, your piece in the Post yesterday charts an inflection point I want the audience to hear about. I quote from your piece, “For the first time, fewer than half, 48% of all voters, say that live TV is their primary source for watching video content. The second most preferred form for viewing is through recorded programming. But a majority said they skip 100% of the ads when they watch. Boy, the days of the Mike Deever dominance of campaign are behind us, aren’t they, Dan Balz?
DB: Boy, they are. I mean, we are in a transition point, and as you say smartly, inflection point in our politics. I mean, I think everybody knows this intuitively, because everybody understands how different they watch programs on television today than they did even five years ago. I mean, there is so much more time shifting and watching on other vehicles or other devices than the regular TV. So much less is watched live. And if you take live sports away, you know, 30% of people in this survey that I talk about did not watch any live TV other than sports in the past weekend when they did the poll. And so the idea that television advertising, which is certainly still the dominant way that campaigns deliver their messages, is going to reach people in the way it did five years ago or certainly ten years ago or fifteen years ago, is something that every campaign knows is out the window. And they are now all having to adapt to this new world.
HH: You know, Dan, it is very possible that the most important medium in Campaign 2016 hasn’t even been invented, yet. That’s because the rapidity with which new platforms gain hold and spread among key demographics.
DB: You know, I had a conversation with Jim Messina, who was the campaign manager for President Obama, just as he was leaving the White House in early 2011 and heading to Chicago to start to build the campaign. And he said he had had a conversation with the President and said to him at that time we can’t run the same campaign in 2012 that we did in 2008. Now they obviously didn’t for a lot of reasons, but one of the things he said to me was, and he pulled out his smart phone, he said this didn’t exist four years ago. This didn’t exist in the 2008 campaign. It’s going to have a powerful impact in 2012. And in 2016, as you say, we don’t know what will be out there that people will be using or how they will be using it to watch and to get content, to get campaign messages. So all of these campaigns as they look at this in a sense are caught in old habits which they know they’re going to have to break, but are having trouble breaking.
HH: You know, one of the reasons I recommend Collision 2012 to people is that you actually wrote about how Twitter impacted the results of the presidential debates in real time. Jonathan Alter also wrote a good book on the campaign, noted how much money Team Obama put into Spanish language advertising. They outmatched Romney 12 to 1. And that kind of change was dramatic, but I think 2016 is going to be far beyond that, Dan Balz. And I don’t really know how people in your business, which is to chronicle professionally both sides of the aisle’s efforts, are going to even know what’s going on. They’re not going to want to tell each other their game plans.
DB: Well you know, I mean, we all seize on every new ad that each campaign puts out, and a lot of these videos that go up on the internet that we’re not sure who those really reach. And the ways that they’re going to be able to target, I mean, target their messages both through television advertising, but in other ways through email and through other content, that they’re able to get to people directly where they watch. It is going to be, in a little sense, it’s like direct mail. We know it’s out there. We don’t really see most of it, and we don’t know what those messages are, and I think that’s one of the things we’re going to be seeing. I mean, one of the, Hugh, one of the things that’s about this is that in a sense, the campaigns are both exceedingly challenged because of the way people are watching and getting their information today compared to the way they used to. At the same time, they have new tools in which they can target this information in a much more precise way. Now it’s, you know, it’s finding niches rather than finding stadiums full of people, but that’s the direction that they’re all having to go. And that raises a question about the efficiency of the way they spend their money, and where they allocate it. Do they allocate most of it to traditional TV advertising? Or do they do it through digital advertising and other things digitally? So I was at a conference last week that Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the Internet Association sponsored. And somebody there said that commercial companies, private firms that do advertising have shifted pretty rapidly in the direction of digital advertising and now do 25 or 30% of their ads spending digitally rather than traditional television. He said most campaigns are still in the neighborhood of 5% in what they’re doing, and that’s just not going to work.
HH: Dan, let me test, after I read your piece, and I asked my booking producer, the very pregnant Danielle who might be delivering as we speak to track you down, it was with this idea in mind. It seems to me that campaigns are going to have to invest a lot more in having their candidates go live on every…John Kasich’s coming up, I’m replaying an interview I did in the first hour this hour, and I think people like Kasich and Walker, and Democrats as well, are going to have to go into live situations more than they would want to, because they do have an audience listening that will tune out during advertising. And then secondarily, these campaigns really have to work the refs. And you’re one of the refs, and a lot of the guys in the media, I’m not ref, I’m a partisan, so I’m not a ref. But they’re going to have to work the refs even more than they have already worked the refs, because they’re not even going to get the luxury of a 30 second ad buy anymore.
DB: Well, that’s true, although I mean, I think they believe that they’ve got better ways than trying to work the refs. I think they still believe that they can get around, if you will, the referees and find ways to go directly to voters. But it is costlier. They’re wasting, if they’re doing it with traditional television advertising, they are wasting much more money than they ever used to, because fewer people are watching those ads than ever before.
HH: Yeah, I just don’t see how networks can count on the same amount of revenue as they had in the past. Different for radio. Radio is actually, because we’re niche and we know who listens to our shows, we’re already able to sell our ads better than TV can. We’re much more narrowly cast. But I don’t know about TV. Let me close by asking you about this, Dan. You mentioned something very important in the article and on the air, which is that everyone is vested in the old system. There are a lot of people who knew how to buy points, who know how to buy market shares, knew which media markets could be divided up. That’s a skill set that might be as useful as horse and buggy riding was useful to motor car racing. Do those guys, are they understating the amount of change in order to hang on for a couple more cycles in their cash cows?
DB: Well, we’re at an inflection point on that. There is a new generation of political strategist and operatives who have been raised in the digital age. And they see where things need to go. And I think that some of them feel that the sort of older generation, if you will, is holding that back. And there is tension inside campaigns on how the allocation of those resources…
HH: Interesting. Do you think that the RNC and the DNC have fully embraced the huge shift that is underway?
DB: I think intellectually, they get it. But you know, it’s hard to do it. The Obama campaign actually did a significant amount more money spending on digital in 2012 than they did in 2008. They understood it. But many campaigns don’t, and it is a slower process than you might expect, given the kind of dramatic change that we’re seeing in the way we all get our information.
HH: These Senate races that are underway, and there are 14 of them which are competitive, maybe 15 if you count Kentucky, that’s the laboratories, isn’t it, Dan Balz? We’ll see 2016 in real time unfolding in the next eight months.
DB: We will, and some campaigns will obviously be better at it than others, because you’ve got, you’re going to have varying levels of talent across these campaigns. I mean, the advantage of a presidential campaign is A) they have huge amounts of resources, so in a sense, they have a little money to burn. And they have the experience of prior campaigns and the people who have been in them. Some of these Senate campaigns are going to have to work very hard to get up to speed on this. They’re having to work very hard to get up to speed on the role of analytics and modeling. They’re going to have to do better on turnout, and figuring out how to do that. And so these Senate campaigns will be an early sign, but I don’t think in any way a definitive one.
HH: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, author of Collision 2012, thanks for joining us on a snowy Washington afternoon.
End of interview.