Are Senate Campaign Ads Hitting TV Late in Louisiana? Probably Not.
With just over six weeks before Election Day, the U.S. Senate campaign in Louisiana has not made much of a splash on television. In fact, television ads in the campaign amount to little more than a trickle – one that has only recently started to flow. Congressman Charles Boustany made it on air first, but not until late August. Congressman John Fleming followed a few weeks later. Treasurer John Kennedy’s campaign has yet to air television ads, but ESAFund, the super PAC supporting his candidacy, began running ads within the past couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the top Democrats in the race remain on the sidelines of the television ad war.
The “months of desultory campaigning” up to this point have probably not set the candidates back. In fact, looking back over Louisiana’s last three races for the U.S. Senate, now is right about the time when television advertising typically ramps up.
The data in this graph include weekly counts of all senate campaign ads aired on local broadcast networks and national cable networks in Louisiana’s seven media markets from 2008, 2010, and 2014. The 2014 data, from the Center for Public Integrity, does not include weekly breakdowns prior to Labor Day. The 2010 data are from the Wesleyan Media Project, and the 2008 data are from its predecessor the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
The same basic pattern also shows up in the 2002 and 2004 senate elections in Louisiana (data are from the Wisconsin Advertising Project). I graphed these two elections separately because the counts are based on the three largest media markets of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport only, not all markets in the state. The difference means we should not compare counts for 2002 or 2004 to counts for 2008, 2010, or 2014. Nevertheless, it is still informative to compare the trends in the weekly ad counts across all of these elections. In each case, the number of ads really begins to rise steadily over the last six to eight weeks of the campaign. That’s right about now.
Last Time Really Was Different
The 2016 campaign may seem lacking in contrast to our last senate race. Because the graph above lacks weekly counts prior to Labor Day for the 2014 race, it masks the sheer volume of advertising that occurred in the early period. In all, the 2014 senate race had more than 34,200 ads aired before Labor Day. That number radically exceeds the 9,163 ads and the 3,863 ads that ran pre-Labor Day in 2008 and 2010 respectively.
What We Have Missed This Year Is the Early Ebb and Flow
The comparison to 2014 does not mean that 2016 is the unusual year. Instead, 2016 looks like a somewhat more muted version of the typical pattern. The real difference between this year and most of the recent senate races is that we have not seen the brief and relatively small flurries of advertising that tend to come before the fall campaign.
For example, in 2002, then-Congressman John Cooksey had ads up by January. Two years earlier he had all but announced his intention to challenge Senator Mary Landrieu, and these early positive biographical spots may have been an effort to salvage his campaign after a gaffe drew national ire from both Republicans and Democrats.
In July of that year, the state Republican Party fired off a barrage of spots criticizing Landrieu’s voting record, to which the Landrieu campaign responded. The exchange petered out in August and did not pick up again until seven weeks before Election Day.
Six years later, Landrieu was on television by mid-July, with John Kennedy following within a few weeks. Again, however, the sound and fury faded by the end of August before picking up again with about eight weeks to go.
In 2010, the first ads were fired off by an interest group trying to link Senator David Vitter’s environmental record to the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spurt of ads lasted just four days. Charlie Melancon was the next one on the airwaves, but not until the start of August. Senator Vitter quickly parried. The back and forth vanished by the end of the month and did not pick up again until six weeks before the election.
The Fading Impact of Ads
Early ads may make the election year more entertaining for those who follow politics closely, but they almost certainly do not have a meaningful impact on voters’ decisions come November. The best experimental and observational evidence from political science indicates that the persuasive effects of campaign ads in congressional and gubernatorial elections disappear within about a week.
The answer, then, to the question about whether or not this year’s candidates are late getting on television depends a lot more on what they will do in the next few weeks than on what they have not done in the last few.