During any given campaign season, one or maybe two state legislative campaigns wind up running ads on Chicago broadcast television stations. But in the age of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s gigantic campaign contributions, it may be easier to count the number of Chicago-area candidates who aren’t running any city broadcast ads.
State Rep. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago) started the trend by airing Chicago broadcast TV ads at the beginning of August—an act completely without precedent in the General Assembly. Chicago broadcast ads are so expensive that campaigns usually don’t start airing them until mid to late October.
The ads are also incredibly inefficient. The Chicago media market has about 7.9 million people aged 12 or over, as measured by the ratings companies.
Four years ago, during the last presidential cycle, a total of 38,748 votes were cast in McAuliffe’s race. So, when McAuliffe and other House candidates air these ads, they’re aiming them at only about half a percentage point of the entire media market. It’s actually much lower than that because most people have already made up their minds by now. So, it’s like using a hydrogen bomb to kill a tiny gnat.
Just last week, the cash-rich Republicans went up on Chicago broadcast TV in five legislative races: Rod Drobinski vs. Rep. Sam Yingling (D-Grayslake), who also made a broadcast buy late last week; Rep. Chris Winger (R-Wood Dale) vs. Cynthia Borbas, who has been up on Chicago broadcast for a little while with an ad blasting Winger for her social conservatism; Rep. David Olsen (R-Downers Grove), who is fending off a late cable TV buy from Greg Hose; Steve Reick, who’s up against John Bartman, who just launched cable ads in retiring McHenry County Democratic Rep. Jack Franks’ district; and Michelle Smith vs. Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Shorewood), who is also on Chicago broadcast.
Keep in mind, those are just the latest to air the ads. Plenty of others were already on Chicago broadcast.
Both candidates in the Rep. Kate Cloonen (D-Kankakee) race have been airing broadcast TV, as have both in Democratic Rep. Andy Skoog’s LaSalle County-area race and both in Democratic Sen. Tom Cullerton’s DuPage County contest, as well as Rep. McAuliffe’s opponent Merry Marwig, among others.
And it’s not just the two parties airing the spots. Dan Proft says his Liberty Principles PAC is currently airing Chicago broadcast ads on behalf of six Republicans.
And it’s not just happening in Chicago. St. Louis broadcast TV has also been a relative rarity for legislative campaign ads. Heck, many statewide candidates forgo advertising in St. Louis because of its high cost-to-benefit ratio.
Rep. Dwight Kay (R-Glen Carbon) has been running ads on St. Louis TV for several weeks, and the Democrats just started airing ads there for Rep. Dan Beiser (D-Alton) to match his Republican opponent Mike Babcock’s buy. The Democrats also started running St. Louis ads for Mike Mathis against Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Raymond).
“It’s crazy,” said one Metro East pal about the flood of St. Louis ads. “I want to throw something at the TV.”
Head up the Mississippi River and you’ll see broadcast TV ads in the Quad Cities for and against Rep. Mike Smiddy (D-Hillsdale). Like in St. Louis, most people who watch Quad Cities television stations don’t live in Illinois.
Then head as far south in Illinois as you can go and Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion) is reportedly pushing a completely unheard of 3,900 gross ratings points on TV stations in and near his district. Generally, if you want half your targeted audience to see an ad three times, you’ll “push” 150 ratings points. Do the math. Bradley must be advertising 24 hours a day on every program.
The Republicans, by the way, estimated last week that they’ve pushed 5,000 points statewide on their anti-House Speaker Michael Madigan message.
But are any of these ads working this late in the game?
Last week, a friend of mine who doesn’t watch much broadcast television said he was watching “Chicago’s Very Own” WGN and texted me the ads as they popped up on his TV: “Anti-Yingling, pro-Duckworth, anti-Mendoza, anti-Skoog, anti-Yingling (again), anti-Cloonen. All back-to-back in a single commercial break.”
A few minutes later, he texted: “Hey back to commercials! Anti-Bartman, anti-Cullerton. Anti-Trump/Rauner (new from LIFT). What is this! An ad for Target. Like, a real ad for buying cheap [stuff]. Refreshing.”
“Seriously,” he texted, “it was just one big jumble. Nothing could break through this. And if you were getting 20 pieces of mail? Shoot me now.”