Christensen: TV blitz fails to change Hagan-Tillis Senate race

08/19/2014 7:14 PM

08/29/2014 12:44 PM

That’s $35 million down the drain.

That is the estimate of what has been spent so far in North Carolina’s Senate race, to little effect.

Several polls show Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican opponent Thom Tillis essentially tied – essentially the same place they were in February. That was before North Carolinians were bombarded with ads bankrolled by the campaigns, the Koch Brothers, by Karl Rove, by Harry Reid and by various other third-party groups in this day of Wild West spending following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling.

So why has the TV blitz hardly moved the needle? Here are several thoughts.

1. North Carolina voters are among the most sophisticated and/or jaded viewers of TV commercials in the country.

Because North Carolina is a battleground state, Tar Heel viewers see more TV commercials than people in most other states. During the 2012 election, $97 million in presidential ads aired in North Carolina. If you lived in say, California or Texas, you saw almost no presidential ads, because neither state was competitive.

Besides the presidential ads, North Carolina has a long, deep history of expensive, intense and often negative political advertising in Senate and gubernatorial races that stretches back a generation.

2. Many people are no longer watching TV live, and instead are viewing recorded shows, allowing them to fast-forward through commercials of all types, including political ads.

3. In a close, competitive state like North Carolina, all the political fundamentals suggest a tight race between a generically competent Republican and a generically competent Democrat, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

4. There is strong national interest in the race because North Carolina could determine which party controls the Senate, which means powerful interests with deep pockets who are pouring money into the state, presumably independent of each other and without coordinating their messages. Everyone is afraid not to spend.

“It is like World War I trench warfare,’’ Taylor said. “What is the point of another $1 million if you’re not going to move an inch with this? But there is some political science research to show that unilateral disarmament would be detrimental to your campaign. If the other side puts up $5 million, you have got to try to match that as much as you can. Losing even what might seem to be a small modicum of support could be determinative of the outcome.’’

5. The public has become so politically polarized that there are not many voters who are open to be persuaded. The midterm election, with its low turnout, is more likely to be decided by turnout. “If I am a Democrat I am probably going to vote 90 percent of the time that way,’’ said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba University. “Even if I see a Tillis ad on the TV I am going to say, ‘I don’t believe any of that.’ And in fact if the charges are so outrageous that may actually spur me to go out and vote. The same thing with the Republicans.’’

But that won’t likely slow both sides from continuing the ad blitz.

“The narrative has been set on both sides,’’ Bitzer said. “I think all the money is doing is reinforcing the narrative that Kay Hagan votes with Barack Obama and Thom Tillis leads an unpopular General Assembly. How many more times can you say that?’’

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