Mass. Governor Hopefuls Launch TV Barrage, Despite Audience Dip

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If you've turned on the TV recently, you might have noticed it's that season again — campaign season.

Ratings show fewer folks are watching traditional television these days, but super PACs and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates are still investing thousands of dollars in TV ads.

Perhaps that’s because, if you’re running for the corner office and you’re not on TV, political analysts suggest there’s a risk you won’t be a seen as a serious, viable candidate.

And, to that end, the big spender this primary season is Democrat Steve Grossman. So far, his bill totals $582,000 for two ads.

His latest commercial focuses on universal pre-K as a component of his economic plan. He implies that by starting education earlier, the state could create a stronger economy.

GOP strategist Rob Gray says the ad doesn’t focus on Grossman’s strengths.

"What's interesting to me is what's not in the ad," Gray said. "He never mentions that he's state treasurer, what he's done as state treasurer.” (In the interest of full disclosure, we should mention Gray works with the Republican Governors Association, which helped pay for a Charlie Baker super PAC ad).

The criticism for Grossman’s ad crosses party lines. Democratic strategist Scott Ferson says it doesn't do what it needs to do.

"If Martha Coakley were not in this race, this would be a very nice ad," Ferson said. "His problem is he needs a Hail Mary. This goes nowhere near that."

Truthfully, Grossman's ads have not substantially budged his numbers. Polling from The Boston Globe shows that since late June, Grossman has only gained 2 percent of the vote — which is within the margin of error.

Democratic Candidates: Playing With 'Alternative' Branding

The clear Democratic front-runner, Attorney General Martha Coakley also jumped into the ad race last week with her first commercial.

She tries to paint herself as an alternative to political insiders and also to appeal to women. Her ad claims that “big-money super PACs” and the "old boys club” are against her.

But Tufts University political science professor Jeff Berry says that message is not credible.

“It’s making her be an outsider when she's the attorney general,” he said. “She seems to have been around forever."

To Berry, the ad also seems overly cautious.

"She’s running out the clock,” he said. “She knows she has the primary won; she doesn't want to make any mistakes.”

Her Democratic opponent Don Berwick can't afford to be as cautious. The former health care administrator is trailing in the polls and struggles with name recognition. His campaign says he plans to begin broadcasting his first TV ad in the Boston market Tuesday.

The ad focuses on Berwick’s record as a pediatrician and health care innovator who helped stamp out medical errors in hospitals.

“Berwick is a renowned guru in terms of health safety and health quality,” Berry said. "The problem is in that ad, it's just too complicated to explain what was accomplished while he was the head of a think tank in Cambridge.”

Berwick's ad also tries to paint him as an alternative to veteran politicians.

But Ferson doesn't think that'll work.

“The Deval Patrick '06 win, come-out-and-defeat-the-career-politicians era has passed,” he said. "I think that appeal is eight years old.”

GOP Candidates: No TV Ad Launches Of Their Own — Yet

On the GOP side, both Baker and his Republican rival Mark Fisher have yet to launch any TV ads of their own. But a super PAC linked with the Republican Governors Association is broadcasting an ad supporting Charlie Baker.

The ad refers to Baker as former Gov. Bill Weld’s “strong right hand.”

But Democratic strategist Ferson questions the benefits of using that political reference.

“I'm trying to think of the percentage of the population that remembers who Bill Weld is at this point,” he said.

Ferson, like our other political experts, also noticed the ad used a female narrator’s voice. Baker needs the women’s vote this election. He lost it by 24 points to Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010.

Two of the independent candidates — Jeff McCormick and Evan Falchuk — started airing ads earlier this summer.

For Candidates, TV Ads Are Losing Value

There was a time when candidates got a lot more mileage from television ads.

A new Nielsen report shows 60 percent of primetime content in the Boston area is viewed live. The other 40 percent is time shifted, which means people can often skip the commercials.

Political scientist Berry says these days knocking on doors and microtargeting is a far more efficient way to reach people.

“This race may turn on turnout,” he said. “And for Coakley, I would put her money, if I were advising her, on getting the Democratic vote out and not waste her money on broadcast TV.”

Republican strategist Gray admits the coveted television audience is shrinking, and campaigns are spending less on television than they were a decade ago, but, in the same breath, he insists "broadcast is still the gold standard in politics.”

And for now, even if candidates only reap a tiny bang for their buck, they're still planning to flood the airwaves this fall. Baker’s campaign has already reserved more than half a million dollars of airtime between the primary and the general election.

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This segment aired on August 18, 2014.

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Asma Khalid Reporter
Asma Khalid formerly led WBUR's BostonomiX, a biz/tech team covering the innovation economy.



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