In Cincinnati's mayoral race, old fashioned mail is the one to beat
Not that it is a significant accomplishment, but Cincinnati mayoral candidate Aftab Pureval last week beat rival David Mann to the airwaves with the first 30-second TV ad of the campaign season.
Not significant, in that spending large amounts of money on TV advertising in a Cincinnati city election is a dubious endeavor at best and an enormous waste of money at worst.
Mayoral elections in recent years have shown there are better ways to spend a campaign dollar than throwing it at TV.
There is micro-targeted direct mail, which has proven to be an effective way of reaching voters. There is targeted social media advertising where candidates can reach the demographic groups they are searching for. And there is always good old-fashioned lit drops, using lists of likely voters.
Pureval's campaign is doing those things too, as is the Mann campaign. Mann says his campaign plans to air its first TV ad on Friday.
It just seems that TV ads often miss the mark.
The Pureval ad is a "Hello-I'm-Aftab-and-I-love-Cincinnati" ad. Pretty innocuous stuff, as are most first-out-of-the-box TV ads. Pureval, now the Hamilton County clerk of courts, vows that if elected mayor, he will serve all 52 of the city's neighborhoods.
It's a no-harm, no-foul TV ad. But that's not the point.
The point is that it is being seen by voters far beyond the city limits of Cincinnati – in the Hamilton County suburbs, in surrounding counties, in Kentucky, in Indiana, in a thousand places where no one can vote for Aftab Pureval and could not possibly care less about how many neighborhoods he represents.
Jared Kamrass, a veteran Democratic political strategist, tells me he doesn't think there is anything wrong with spending money on TV campaign ads – if the candidate has money to spare.
"TV can be like bringing a bazooka to the fight when what you need is a razor blade,'' said Kamrass, who is not doing work for either of the mayoral candidates this year. "It all depends on the candidate's budget. If you have enough money for a significant TV buy, I'd say go ahead and do it. If you don't, spend the money on well-targeted direct mail."
Clearly, Pureval has the money to spend on TV. Mann's campaign is planning on being on the air, too, possibly later this week.
But, in any campaign, the last thing you want to do is waste money on people who are never going to vote for you.
It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with John Mirlisena, the plumber-turned-politician who served on City Council in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1991, when Mirlisena was running for re-election, he hired a pilot to fly a propeller plane, trailing a Vote Mirlisena banner, around and around in circles over a jam-packed Riverfront Stadium during a weekend Reds game.
There were probably 50,000 people in the ballpark that day. I was one of them. Later, I asked John why he had rented that plane.
You do realize, John, that the vast majority of the people who were in the ballpark Saturday live somewhere outside the city of Cincinnati and couldn't vote for you even if they wanted to?
Hadn't thought of it that way, Mirlisena said.
There went a few thousand campaign dollars swirling down the drain.
Since direct election of the mayor began in 2001, the best example of how little TV advertising counts came in 2005, when Mark Mallory, who resigned from the state senate to run for mayor, took on then-council member David Pepper in the November election for mayor.
In the September mayoral primary that year, Pepper and Mallory were the two top vote-getters in a seven-candidate field, meaning they would face each other in November. Pepper ran ever-so-slightly ahead of Mallory in the primary, with a 146 lead out of 43,470 votes cast.
But, in the general election, Mallory won with 52% of the vote.
Why the turnaround between September and November?
First of all, a lot more people voted in November – a little over 71,000.
Secondly, then – as is the case now – City Council and city government were in a period of low repute among voters. Today, it is because of issues of public corruption. Then, it was a sense that council was in chaos, reeling out of control.
Mallory, part of a dynastic political family, had never served a day in City Hall. Pepper, on the other hand, was a member of City Council. It was easy to paint him as part of the "chaos," although that was never Pepper's style at all.
Pepper raised $1.2 million for the mayoral campaign, which was a record number at the time. Mallory had about $480,000 to work with.
Mallory spent some of his money on TV – maybe $50,000, as he recalls – but the most memorable part of his campaign was a massive, highly targeted direct mail campaign that sent multiple mail pieces into thousands of voters' homes, each one superbly designed and all with the same basic message.
"I was focused on one thing – end the chaos,'' Mallory told me. "My whole mantra was this: 'I have not been part of the problem, but I can be the solution.' "
It was "micro-targeted" for demographic groups that the campaign believed would choose an "outsider" candidate like Mallory if given a reason to do so.
"It really worked like a charm,'' Mallory said. "Much more effective than the TV. With TV, you end up talking to a whole lot of people who can't vote for you, even if they wanted to."
None of this is to say that TV advertising is completely irrelevant.
"It's not a bad tool for catching voters' attention,'' Kamrass said.
Voters, he said, tend to be the people who watch the local news broadcasts and also the game shows that follow the news shows.
But, in the end, if a candidate has a limited budget, Kamrass said, "you skip the TV and go straight to targeted mail."
Direct mail - the best bang for the buck in politics.