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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Bush Team Uses Cable in an Effort to Shore Up Support

The president's campaign can afford to target niche audiences and motivate core followers with TV ads on specific channels.

March 14, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — They began during the Don Imus talk show one morning this month on MSNBC. Then they popped up on Fox News Channel, CNN and ESPN. Motor sports buffs even saw them on FX and the Speed Channel -- commercials for the reelection of President Bush.

Experts say the Bush campaign's advertising on national cable television marks a significant step in a largely uncharted frontier for political media.

The cable ads serve a dual purpose for Bush. They allow him to target specific demographic niches with a precision that is harder to obtain on broadcast TV; for instance, this year's hot voting bloc, "NASCAR dads." And they allow him to disseminate his message more widely to at least some voters in every state.

That increased exposure could help Bush lift his stagnant national poll ratings. It could also pave the way for his campaign to make deeper investments down the road in states that now lean toward the Democrats. Bush hopes to make gains in such states as the election approaches.

"It's the first time a presidential campaign has made a major buy on national cable," said Kenneth M. Goldstein, a political media expert at the University of Wisconsin. "I expect cable to be a bigger part of the advertising mix this year. You can more efficiently target it."

Until now, most presidential campaign ads have been run on broadcast TV or, more recently, in local cable markets.

Candidates typically focus their ad buys on key states, such as Florida or Ohio, and saturate them with 30- and 60-second spots broadcast from local stations.

The Bush-Cheney campaign followed that pattern March 4, when it launched ads targeting about 17 crucial states.

But the Republican incumbent's reelection team that day also began what would probably become the most extensive cable TV advertising onslaught in presidential politics.

In the first three days of its TV effort, the campaign spent about $140,000 on national cable, according to data compiled for The Times by TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, an independent monitor in Arlington, Va. That was about one-tenth of the campaign's total estimated TV spending from March 4 through March 6.

John F. Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, is not yet on national cable, although he began to broadcast ads this weekend to counter Bush in 16 states.

For now, it appears, the Massachusetts senator cannot afford national cable TV. Bush, with more than $100 million in the bank, can. And he appears to be breaking new ground.

While Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole experimented with cable ads in 1996, experts said there was virtually no national cable advertising in the 2000 presidential campaign.

This year, Bush has big plans for a medium that now reaches more than 73 million households and competes strongly against broadcast networks in primetime. His campaign is already on at least half a dozen cable channels and has bought time on others, including the Learning Channel and the Golf Channel.

"Because more and more people now have access to cable, and the shows are more and more diverse, it just made a lot of sense for us to do," said Matthew Dowd, a top strategist for the Bush campaign.

Analysts said the Bush cable buys reflected, in part, the campaign's desire to motivate its core followers. Commercials have run frequently on Fox News Channel and others with a slightly more conservative viewership than the television market as a whole.

"Those are good places to buy if you need to reinforce people who share your ideology," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political ads at the University of Pennsylvania.

"If your question is, 'How do you increase your voter turnout in a close election?' ... you spend a certain amount of time getting them revved up. That's what you do if you have extra money."

Democratic strategists say it's a sign of the president's weakness that Bush has to spend money talking to his base, instead of reaching out to swing voters. Indeed, some conservatives are restive over the growth of government and the federal budget deficit during the Bush presidency.

But it's also widely believed that a key to the 2004 election will be which campaign can maximize the turnout of its loyalists. Cable TV, like radio, direct mail, and even the emerging medium of e-mail, may prove an efficient way to deliver customized messages to demographic niches.

How does the targeting work? Consider one of Bush's first buys on the History Channel, which has a viewership that tilts toward older men. The ad ran during a program called "Punishment," described in listings as a history of criminal punishment since Greek and Roman times.

Presumably, the campaign wanted to reach men interested in law and order.

There were also ads shown on cable outlets dedicated to NASCAR and motorcycle racing. Richy Glassberg, senior vice president for advertising at the Speed Channel, said Bush was the first politician to place an ad on the channel in its nine-year history. But Glassberg said it was no big deal.

"I just thought it was another advertiser trying to reach a great male audience," Glassberg said. "Just a piece of business that we should have had."

He said politicians were simply following other television advertisers. "This is what the industry has gone to in the last four years since you paid attention," he said. "The breadth and depth of cable is delivering a phenomenal audience."

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