Political observers: Surprisingly few TV ads precede this year’s NH primary

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Over the past few months, New Hampshire voters have examined the GOP presidential candidates, trying to decide who to vote for on Tuesday. But this primary season in the Granite State has been marked, or unmarked, by a dearth of campaign ads.

“It’s an enormous disparity. In past years, there’s this flurry of activity on television,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center.

“This year,” he said, “you watch the six o’clock news, you watch the debate, and there are all these spots where it’s obviously not an ad that somebody paid for, and they have room. So many campaigns are doing so little TV this year.”

“Four years ago, Mitt Romney was up in the spring on Boston TV as well as New Hampshire trying to build his name ID,” said Fergus Cullen, former Chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

“This time around,” he said, “there’s been almost no paid advertising until just the last couple of weeks.”

Jon Huntsman, for instance, who has based his entire campaign on the Granite State, did not buy a single ad on WMUR Channel 9, the only statewide television station, until this month when he made a single $48,875 ad buy.

Mitt Romney, by contrast, spent over $100,000 on WMUR ads just this month, and another $285,140 in December. Ron Paul spent about $285,000 each month. Newt Gingrich put his first ads up on the station this month, with a single $10,000 ad buy. Rick Santorum did not buy any ad space from WMUR.

Observers say the amount of television advertising is significantly less than what it was in past election cycles. (RELATED: Full coverage of the New Hampshire primary)

“When Channel 9 moved into a new headquarters, they called it the house that Steve Forbes built ’cause he had so many ads on TV,” Arlinghaus said.

The major tell, Cullen said, is that WMUR still has ad space to sell. The Daily Caller witnessed a new ad buy by the Romney campaign come in on Friday, and someone from Buddy Roemer’s campaign was supposedly en route with a check to pay for an ad buy.

“In the past … you had to buy your ads well in advance to reserve your airtime,” Cullen said. “So if you were Rick Santorum and three weeks ago you didn’t have the money to reserve ad time, even if you got it in the last week, it didn’t matter cause there was no ad time there.”

“This is unheard of,” said Cullen, “that you could show up three days before the primary and have anything to buy. It’s like buying a cabbage patch doll — they would always run out.”

The reason for the dearth of political ads is unclear. One possibility is that there is less money available than in past races.

“Fewer ads reflect the reality of the economy, less dollars out there, the ever increasing use of social media, advertising on web sites and the demands of campaigning in multiple states all at once,” theorized Thomas Rath, the state’s former Attorney General and a senior adviser to the Romney campaign.

Then there’s the fact that no one has considered this race contested for quite some time. Romney has had a large lead in the state since the beginning, and currently holds a 20-point lead over his nearest competitor in most polls.

“I hate to say this,” Arlinghaus said, “but because Romney’s lead is so huge, they’re looking at, all right, I’m going to use New Hampshire as a springboard for something else, and it’s not a contest in and of itself.”

But Cullen suggested that there had also been a shift in the mentality of the electorate, theorizing that residents have become more willing to vote for candidates who put less effort into the state.

He pointed to the fact that supporters of Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann had at one point or another comprised 20 percent in polls, without hardly meeting a single voter.

“I don’t blame politicians for acting like politicians,” Cullen said. “If you can get 20 percent in the polls without busting your tail, why would you bust your tail?”

With the 15 some-odd debates this primary season, voters have seen a lot of the candidates, who have regularly invaded their living rooms. This constant opportunity for outreach has been a boon for candidates with less money — pretty much anyone other than Romney and Ron Paul — and they have relied on these opportunities and social media to get their messages out.

In the past, however, Cullen said, New Hampshire voters penalized candidates for ignoring actual campaigning in the state.

“There have been earned media only candidates in the past, but the one difference is that they always end up being sort of exposed by the electorate,” Cullen said. “I mean, Fred Thompson last time around did almost zero campaigning — I was the Republican Party Chairman four years ago and I never met Fred Thompson. That’s how little campaigning he did. It’s pathetic. And he was rejected by voters for it. And Rudy Giuliani was basically doing a couple of Potemkin village kind of events here and there, almost no real campaigning, and voters punished them for it.”

This year, he said, candidates are facing a “more passive electorate” that will let them “take the past of least resistance.”

Part of this, Rath suggested, is that pop culture has acclimatized people to this type of contest.

“I think the American people are comfortable watching large, multi-person talent competitions,” he said. The debates, he said, were uncannily similar to American Idol.

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