Believe it or not, one of the questions I’m asked the most these days is: “When will Gov. Rauner and J.B. Pritzker start airing their general election TV ads?”
A few weeks ago, Chicago pundit Dick Simpson predicted to Crain’s Chicago Business that the new campaign TV ads would start “any minute.” He went on to say that both candidates will be worried about the other candidate getting out front.
Four years ago, I mistakenly believed candidate Bruce Rauner would take a page from Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s 2014 re-election playbook and immediately bury Gov. Pat Quinn under a mountain of negative advertising. Instead, Rauner waited until July 11 to air his first general election TV ad.
So, what’s it gonna be this year?
From what I can gather, I don’t think Pritzker wants the blame for being the first to go back up on TV. Pritzker spent tens of millions of dollars in television ads since May 2 of last year and TV-viewing voters aren’t eager for more. By waiting for Rauner to pull the trigger, Pritzker can say he had no choice but to go back on the air to counter whatever Rauner does.
Besides, private polling reportedly shows Pritzker with a substantial double-digit lead over Rauner in what’s still looking like a favorable year for Democrats, so there’s no immediate need for Pritzker to start running ads.
After checking around, I don’t think the governor’s campaign is all that eager to resume spending big bucks on TV right away, either.
What I didn’t consider in 2014 was that at least part of the reason Rauner went dark was to help him fade away from voters’ consciousness after the primary, which allowed him to introduce a new messaging campaign for the general election.
Most TV ads quickly lose their impact not long after they’re pulled off the air. If you go up with a message, you gotta stay up with that message or most of your spending was for naught. So, if you want to introduce a revamped, general election message, you sometimes need to give that earlier message time to expire. It’s kind of like a reboot.
After Rauner’s bitter, unexpectedly close GOP primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives, it’s probably best to get out of the public’s face for a while and allow people time to forget and maybe forgive. One of the best things about having such an early primary, after all, is it gives the winners plenty of time to try to heal the wounds before November.
Plus, what’s the rush? Running ads in April of 2006 allowed Gov. Blagojevich to quickly push Judy Baar Topinka’s poll numbers down, which helped dry up her fundraising. The first post-primary poll had Topinka leading the incumbent, but that changed in a hurry after the Blagojevich ad attack, and Topinka couldn’t immediately fight back because she had drained her account to win the Republican primary.
The only way to dry up J.B. Pritzker’s money is to completely crash the world economy and send us all back to the Stone Age. TV ads can do a lot, but they can’t do that. Rauner knows that if he airs ads, Pritzker can easily afford to immediately respond.
And while Rauner has shown a willingness to spend his personal fortune to win elections, people who’ve been close to him over the years say he does become reluctant and grumpy when it comes time to actually write the checks.
Besides, TV watchers truly do need a break from the primary’s bottomless pit of negative TV ads (and you can bet that most of the TV ads we’ll eventually see ain’t gonna be about flowers and ponies).
But not everyone is getting a rest. Both campaigns are currently advertising online, through social media, Google searches, etc.
The effectiveness of online advertising is growing by the day because it can be so finely targeted and because so many people are spending so much time on their computers and smart phones. TV is still the best way to reach voters, but it’s slowly starting to lose its punch as viewership declines and splinters into a million different directions (witness the amount of money Pritzker and Rauner had to spend to win). And they can advertise online without much notice by the news media.
By the way, this comes with the usual caveat that the greatest beauty of politics is it can always change in a big hurry. I’m hearing the governor may be getting pressured by someone close to him to start spending money soon, so we’ll see.