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The decline of television (political advertising)?

Could it be that technology may be bringing toward a close one of the central problems in American politics that earlier technology helped create?

The large problem is money – the massive amounts of money raised and spent in political campaigns, and which this year have broken all sorts of new records in the Northwest as elsewhere – most expensive governor’s race in Idaho, most expensive Senate race (almost certainly) in Washington, most expensive House race ever in Idaho . . . on and on. Where money is a problem in politics, we clearly still are in the belly of the monster.

How is all that money spent – or, put another way, what do they need it for? The big component is broadcast, mostly television, advertising. For a generation, the political theory is that a candidate who can heavily outspend an opponent – which translates to, air many more TV spots than the opponent – will often win. (Of course, you have to factor in that many well-funded candidates get well funded because they are considered strong prospects to win.) Campaigns use money for other things too, but if you struck TV advertising off the budget, the size of many of those warchests would shrivel.

So: What if it turns out that TFV ads are simply becoming ineffective as opinion drivers, are no longer helping candidates win elections?

We’ll get a more definitive read on that next Tuesday night. But if, for purposes of this discussion, we can assume that recent polls are reasonably predictive, then we may be seeing the early stages of decline in political TV advertising – which could turn out to be one of the best developments for years in the conduct of politics in this country.

Today’s Oregonian/KATU-TV poll, which falls in line wth several recent polls (one exception being a Zogby outlier), provides one bit of evidence. It gives Democratic incumbent Governor Ted Kulongoski a seven-point lead, more or less tracking what most polls over the last month have shown: A modest but discernible, and very slightly growing, lead over Republican challenger Ron Saxton. What’s remarkable is that this happened after one of the biggest TV ad barrages Oregon has ever seen, in which Saxton outspent Kulongoski during the general election campaign by about two to one. If TV were the key to the election, Saxton would be comfortably ahead by now.

So you say that Oregon is Democratic-leaning anyway? Apart from the debatability of that proposition, consider Idaho’s first congressional district, where Republican Bill Sali has nearly two-to-one outspent Democrat Larry Grant; when third-party efforts are factored in, Grant may be outspent nearly three to one. And yet two solid polls put the race at a dead heat, with Grant on the move. Same story in the Idaho governor’s race, where Republican Butch Otter has outraised Democrat Jerry Brady more than two to one, and likewise finds himself a in a dead heat. Same, as well, in Washington’s 5th district, where Republican incumbent Cathy McMorris is outspending Democrat Peter Goldmark two to one, only to see Goldmark rising rapidly into shooting range.

Okay. This is an unusual year – Republicans are having a tough go generally. Many factors are at play in these races. The point is that the usual medicine for such conditions, money and TV time, seem now to do little good.

We’ve heard for a couple of a line of thought nationally that as skepticism of TV ads generally has grown, alongside the use of the Internet as a central information source, political communications may have to change. Indeed, this year many of the most-discussed videos nationally have been designed for Internet viral distribution rather than broadcast.

Watch the results on Tuesday night, and then imagine the conversations between candidates, manager and consultants about just what all that TV money bought them this cycle.

If they conclude what we think they might, we could be turning a corner in American politics.

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