WASHINGTON — Howard Dean poured millions of dollars into television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire in a futile effort to knock out his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in January. Wesley K. Clark mounted a multistate ad blitz for several February contests, but bombed in all but one.
Dean, a former Vermont governor, and Clark, a retired Army general from Arkansas, left the race with the dubious distinction of having outspent all their rivals on television advertising.
Now, as the Democratic nominating battle nears a possible March climax, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina have chosen a narrow TV battleground: Georgia, Ohio and upstate New York. Their ad campaigns are bypassing four New England states, plus Maryland, Minnesota, California and metropolitan New York, -- where the bulk of the delegates will be at stake Tuesday.
The very nickname of the March 2 contests, "Super Tuesday," evokes comparison to the Super Bowl, with its TV commercial sideshow. Yet it now appears that most Democrats who vote or caucus next week will not have had a chance to see a single Kerry or Edwards commercial.
The modest TV tactics used by Kerry and Edwards and the spectacular flops of big spenders Clark and Dean show a surprising development of the 2004 Democratic campaign: TV ads matter far less than many experts thought they would.
"In terms of actually determining who's going to win a particular election, probably we do overrate television," said Lee Sigelman, a campaign advertising analyst at George Washington University. "What most defines campaigns are a few pivotal events, something truly major. The day-to-day flow of advertisements on television, it's just kind of noise."
Few analysts or strategists could have predicted that TV ads would prove more important in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses than in the 10-state, coast-to-coast battle that will be waged next week. Yet that apparently will be the case.
The most significant head-to-head TV ad battle of the campaign so far was fought between Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. In dueling attack ads days before the Iowa caucuses, Dean faulted Gephardt for supporting the Iraq war and Gephardt questioned Dean's commitment to Medicare. Both paid a price. Gephardt dropped out Jan. 20 after finishing fourth; Dean was severely wounded with a weak third-place finish. There have been few overtly negative ads in the weeks since, and none from Kerry or Edwards.
Through Saturday, Kerry spent $8.4 million on broadcast TV ads in major markets during the campaign, data compiled for The Times show. Edwards spent $6.7 million. Dean and Clark spent $10.1 million and $10.2 million, respectively, before dropping out.
Kerry and Edwards spent almost nothing on commercials in the days immediately following the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17, according to the independent monitor TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, based in Virginia. Although the two rivals have announced new ad buys this week, it remains highly unlikely that they will saturate the airwaves before "Super Tuesday."
Analysts cite several reasons for the diminished role of campaign commercials.
First, Kerry and Edwards have little spare cash, and are spending much of what they do have on such basics as candidate travel, state-to-state organizing and voter turnout.
Second, the two media markets that would reach more voters than any others, Los Angeles and New York City, are prohibitively expensive.
Third, Kerry, the front-runner, is conserving his money for a potential general election contest against President Bush.
Finally, Kerry has benefited from an enormous edge in free publicity, making it on the network evening news and major newspaper front pages virtually every day. Kenneth M. Goldstein, an analyst of campaign commercials at the University of Wisconsin, said Kerry reaped "an unbelievable tidal wave of momentum and free media coverage" after his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Edwards, meantime, may harbor future political ambitions if he falls short against Kerry. He has staked his candidacy on a pledge to remain positive, and shows no interest in slowing Kerry with a barrage of negative ads.
Instead, Edwards is airing an ad that reinforces his "two Americas" stump speech, spotlighting what he believes is a class divide in healthcare, school systems, the tax code and government access for special interests.
Kerry is airing an ad that first won wide acclaim in Iowa, featuring a former crewmate named Del Sandusky who testifies to Kerry's bravery as the skipper of a Navy swift boat during the Vietnam War. But Kerry also announced Tuesday that he would take on Bush with a new ad this week in Ohio and upstate New York.
"Three million jobs lost ... that is an astonishing failure," Kerry says in the script, referring to the jobs record since Bush took office.
"We need to be on the side of America's workers."
After a narrator recites Kerry's program of ending tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas and lowering healthcare costs, the Massachusetts senator declares: "George Bush won't do it. I will."
Bush is preparing to launch his own commercials March 4. At that point, TV ads could gain renewed importance as the president and his Republican allies begin a counterattack on Kerry. Bush had more than $100 million on hand last month, money he can spend to buff his own image and tarnish the Democrat's.
Kerry's announcement Tuesday showed he is ready to reply in kind.