Rob Christensen

Christensen: Tillis, Hagan campaign ads take state into new realm

This is what a Senate race looks like when money is no object.

The North Carolina Senate race is expected to pass the $100 million mark this year, blowing past the old record of $76 million spent in Massachusetts when Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated Republican incumbent Scott Brown in 2012.

But that will come as no surprise to anybody who has turned on their TV lately and seen a steady rat-a-tat-tat of attack ads – some of which actually contain grains of truth.

But is anybody paying attention to the TV blitz? And is anybody benefiting beyond the TV station owners and shareholders?

A focus group of 10 Charlotte mothers conducted for Wal-Mart by a bipartisan polling team last week found that the women were blocking out the ads. If anything, they viewed them as an unrelenting irritant.

Two veteran operatives of North Carolina Senate campaigns, Democrat Gary Pearce and Republican Carter Wrenn, say there are diminishing returns as one ad appears after another ad.

“There is clearly a point where people can’t absorb any more,” Pearce said. “The question is, is it possible that one of the ads or a few of the ads has some piece of information that makes a difference with that little slice of undecided voter? I just don’t know. There is a saturation point.”

Wrenn said that after a certain volume of ads, people develop a resistance and begin tuning them out after the first couple of seconds. People are also not inclined to watch three or four political ads during a single commercial break. As the attacks pile up, they lose their credibility.

Harder to break through

It takes an unusual ad to break through the clutter.

An example of a successful ad was in 1984 when North Carolina also set a national record for a Senate race by spending $26 million ($60 million in today’s dollars). Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Martin was able to break through the barrage by appearing in a red flannel shirt and speaking directly to voters. It was so different and so positive that it had an impact, Wrenn said.

Today, it is even more difficult to reach voters. There are far more channels. People are watching programs on their computers, or watching commercial-free channels, or watching recorded programs on a delayed basis, where they can fast-forward through commercials.

Hagan went on the air heavily after the Republican primary in May, with commercials that attempted to define Tillis as the leader of an unpopular Republican legislature.

Since then, she has led in most of the public opinion polls.

Is Tillis too late?

Tillis and his allies stepped up their advertising buys in recent weeks, hammering away on a broad range of issues including the Islamic State, Ebola, and whether Hagan’s family business benefited from a federal stimulus grant. But the question is whether Tillis waited too late.

For the Wal-Mart moms, the ads have become one big blur.

Both sides are now throwing millions more onto the airwaves. Pearce said it is sort of like the theory of “mutually assured destruction” involving nuclear weapons. It may be overkill, but both sides are afraid to stop building new missiles.

“We have sort of reached a point where no state has gone before,” Pearce said. “It’s sort of like the ‘Star Trek’ of TV ads right now.”