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Media Experts Taking Over : Campaigning Now Subtle Exercise in Demographics

February 21, 1988|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — On the afternoon after his victory in New Hampshire, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis sat in the Las Fontanas restaurant in Tampa, Fla., and engaged in hard-core campaigning, Super Tuesday style.

He didn't shake any hands or kiss any babies, visit any fat-cat fund raisers or meet a single voter.

But in an hour and 40 minutes, Dukakis appeared live via satellite on local news programs on 12 stations across six Super Tuesday states, including KING-TV in Seattle, WPLG-TV in Miami and WBAL-TV in Baltimore.

From now on, say campaign officials, satellite hookups, demographic studies, airport press conferences and shrewd purchases of TV advertising time will replace house-to-house canvassing, stops in roadside cafes and saturation paid advertising as the key tactical elements of the presidential campaign.

The shift to the wholesale campaigning of Super Tuesday means that the press, whose coverage some campaigns feel they were able to counteract before, is likely to have more sway over voters.

And it means that the art of running for President now becomes a subtle science of research and demographics.

Rather than trying to find a message that will appeal to the most voters, candidates and their handlers are isolating their respective "target populations" by congressional districts and aiming the candidate's appearances and advertising there to "achieve the greatest efficiency per dollar spent," in the words of Ed Reilly, pollster for Democratic candidate Richard A. Gephardt.

The process reveals the extent to which Super Tuesday, a 20-state event on March 8, has forced campaigns to rely more on market research than political instinct.

It has transformed half the country into a war-room map broken down into small delegate units. It has transformed voters into demographic targets. And it has further translated the language of politics into the sterile vocabulary of social research marketing.

Unique Political Process

"We've never faced quite this kind of process before," Gephardt media consultant Robert Shrum said.

The reason is size. In New Hampshire, Vice President George Bush saved his political career in the final three days by kicking into hyperdrive a crack local organization, telephone banks and a saturation TV ad campaign.

But on Super Tuesday, with 90 million people to reach, no campaign organization can call 70% of the voters, as some did in New Hampshire.

And with 50 to 60 TV markets, no candidate can afford to dominate television with paid advertisements, as Gephardt did in Iowa or Bush did in the final days of New Hampshire.

"From now on, nobody will be able to dominate the thinking process with paid commercials--nobody," said Democratic candidate Albert Gore Jr.

New Hampshire and Iowa were small enough, and TV time cheap enough, that voters saw spots for Democrats Dukakis and Gephardt and Republicans Bush and Sen. Bob Dole 20 times or more, according to campaign media officials.

Will Target Ads

Now, Dukakis' campaign, for instance, will run its ads in certain markets so that the average voter will see it three to five times, and in many places the campaign won't run any ads, Dukakis media buyer Leslie Dach said.

Even if campaigns had unlimited funds, federal regulations effectively bar the kind of media saturation seen in Iowa and New Hampshire. Most campaigns spent the maximum amount allowed in Iowa and New Hampshire under federal matching fund rules, which are based on each state's population. But to do so for Super Tuesday would cost roughly $25 million, which is close to the total allowed any campaign for all primaries combined.

So the successful candidates on Super Tuesday will be those who can focus most efficiently on their target population. Once these potential supporters are identified, the candidates will tighten their rhetoric to please them and use satellite uplinks, selective advertising and airport press conferences to reach them.

The campaigns identified their target populations in Iowa and New Hampshire by finding out what categories of voters--based on income, consumer preferences, geography, education and other criteria--were receptive to the candidate's carefully constructed message.

Now, using census data and polling, and by calculating what TV time costs in each potential market, they are finding out where those voters live in Super Tuesday states and determining what it would cost to reach them through television advertising.

Indeed, most campaigns, such as Dukakis', are not trying to win the most votes, but have "focused on a delegate strategy," in the words of Dukakis' campaign manager Susan Estrich. Instead of trying to persuade the most Americans their man is best, the campaigns are trying simply to win as many delegates as possible to the national conventions.

In most states, the delegates are apportioned according to the percentage of the popular vote in each congressional district.

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