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DCCC’s Media Buy: Dumb Politics, or Smart PR?

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently went on the air with radio spots in a dozen Congressional districts. But while committee operatives have been busy documenting the media attention that those ads have received, the same folks at the DCCC have been tight-lipped about the scope and nature of the media buy itself.

When I inquired about the size of the radio buy — how much money was spent, how many times the ads aired in each market — you’d think I’d asked for the number of the DCCC’s Swiss Bank Account. [IMGCAP(1)]

After a lot of hemming and hawing, Democratic insiders acknowledge that the committee’s buy was “small.” Party insiders say the committee doesn’t want to let the Republicans know how much was spent. It’s allegedly about “strategy.” Right.

I wish I had been in that super-secret meeting with DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) when the cone of silence came down from the ceiling, allowing party strategists to talk about their media buy without worrying that the Republicans had planted a microphone in the tulips.

What if the National Republican Congressional Committee knew the Democrats spent $30,000, $300,000 or $3 million on those ads? The NRCC tracks Democratic media buys, and GOP strategists are likely to have a pretty good idea whether the DCCC has helped move voter sentiment by the ads and how, if at all, to respond.

That’s not to say there aren’t matters of strategic importance that both parties want to keep under wraps. They aren’t going to tell you or me every seat they believe may be vulnerable, or how they’ll ultimately spend their resources, or what surprise ammunition they’re sitting on.

But a smattering of radio ads 18 months before an election? In reality, the NRCC doesn’t seem worried at all. Maybe that’s because Republican political operatives believe they already have a pretty good idea about what the Democrats did with their radio buy.

“They just did spot buying. They didn’t buy any volume of points,” one GOP operative told me in response to my questions about the DCCC’s radio buy.

By not releasing dollar figures, the DCCC seems to be hiding something. Maybe it’s the fact that the campaign committee didn’t spend much on the buys and was merely trying to generate some free media.

There’s nothing wrong with free media, of course — especially if you can get it for free.

Democratic insiders have released a long list of newspapers and television stations that have reported on the DCCC’s radio ads. The list includes WNBC-TV in New York City, NBC4 in Los Angeles, Boston’s WCVB-TV and stations in Seattle and Phoenix, as well as the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. All are media outlets in large cities with expensive media markets.

Frankly, if the strategists over at the DCCC had invested major party funds into a radio campaign a year and a half before an election, I would have thought that they had lost their collective minds. The ads won’t have much (if any) impact on the public’s impression of the incumbents, so allocating committee resources now on voter contact would be foolish.

On the other hand, money spent on ads that early might help recruit wavering potential candidates or raise additional campaign funds from party activists. And there is at least one strong sign that the ads are, at least in part, a fundraising tool.

A DCCC fundraising e-mail signed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and circulated late last week trumpets the radio ads, making the miniscule radio buy sound like a major media campaign by the DCCC, and asking grass-roots Democrats for cash.

“Help the DCCC make sure this lesson sinks in — make sure the Republicans hear the echoes of their hypocrisy every time they turn on the radio during their break,” writes Pelosi as she asks for money to keep the radio ads on the air.

Every time they turn on the radio? Hardly.

That said, there’s certainly nothing wrong with Democratic campaign strategists wanting to get a hit on their targets or raise cash through a coordinated free-media and fundraising effort. The folks at the DCCC are paid to do that, after all. And if the media in New York City, Los Angeles, Louisville, Ky., Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C., take the bait and cover a semi-phony political happening, who’s fault is that?

But remember this: All of the buzz generated by the DCCC’s radio buys will dissipate quickly. It won’t have a measurable effect on the election cycle or on the incumbents targeted by the spots.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (www.rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).

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