Abandoning the electoral college would redefine campaign tactics

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Abandoning the electoral college in future elections-unlikely, but still a possibility after this year's jumbled presidential returns-could lead to a shift in millions and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in media, with local stations the big losers and TV networks the big winners.

While both Sen. Dick Durbin (D, Ill.) and New York Democratic Sen.-elect Hillary Clinton last week called for eliminating the electoral college, most political strategists doubted it would happen.

"I don't sense a huge national fervor for it," said Evan Tracey, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, Alexandria, Va. "By the time Congress and the new president will be seated, people will have forgotten the issue."

The electoral college became an issue in the days after the election when it appeared Texas Gov. George Bush could win the electoral vote and presidency even though his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, had the popular vote.

States already are free to pass laws allocating electoral votes based in part on popular vote-something done in Maine and Nebraska. Observers, however, say it's unlikely there will be enough support to push through a constitutional amendment to replace the electoral college with a popular vote.

But eliminating the electoral college-or lessening its effect by having states allocate their electoral votes based on popular vote-could alter the media focus of the presidential campaign from "swing" states to those with the most votes, while dramatically altering the political efficiency of network TV buys.

This year neither Vice President Gore's campaign nor Gov. Bush's campaign spent anything on network TV; on media in Texas or New York City; or, until the final week or so, in California. Instead they spent their ad money-part of the nearly $67 million in federal financing each campaign gets-to bombard viewers in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other swing states with ads. Political parties and interest groups added to the saturation in the swing states.

DRASTIC CHANGES EXPECTED

Political insiders and advertising executives say an end to the electoral college or a move by states to allocate electoral votes would drastically change the media plan for presidential campaign ads.

Stuart Stevens, one of Mr. Bush's media advisers and a veteran of other Republican presidential campaigns, said the need to tailor messages to local concerns might limit the switch of ads to network TV, but even if ads stayed local, the markets where they ran would change dramatically.

Added Bill Dal Col, a veteran GOP strategist who managed Steve Forbes' presidential campaign, "All the media would be focused on places like California, Illinois, New York and Florida. The biggest media markets would get the dollars because they would be better buys."

Mr. Tracey, whose company closely tracks political ad spending, said once candidates decided to advertise in California and New York, the efficiency of buying network TV would kick in.

"The candidates would have to buy as much network TV as the networks would sell them," he said. "The days of buying Des Moines and Cedar Rapids would be over. You would concentrate on the top 30 markets and network cable."

Less clear is what would happen to party ads. The Republican National Committee spent $60 million in local markets this year on ads supporting Gov. Bush, while Democrats spent somewhat less for ads pushing Vice President Gore.

Currently, most of the major broadcast networks won't take ads that don't come from the candidates. Mr. Tracey predicts that the amount of money involved could prompt some rethinking by the networks about accepting issue and party ads.

Democratic media strategist Steve Rabinowitz said any dropping of the electoral college could also affect the message.

"If you eliminate the electoral college, then every vote has the same value and you might see not only a shift to mainstream media, but also more constituency-targeted ads," he said, citing as one example Hispanic advertising, hurt this time because neither California nor Texas were in play.

Dave Neal, president, of Strategic Media Services, a Republican media buyer, said a change "would drive dollars to the networks." He estimated that as much as 35% to 40% of the campaigns' own spending could move to networks.

"It's always been a state-by-state battle. With a change you would lay in a network base and supplement it with spot. It would change the total configuration."

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