Not-So-Secret Strategy Wins House for GOP: 'We're Not Other Guy'

Party Overpowered by Democratic Cash but Compensated With Focused, Unified Message

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- How's this for a return on investment: Republicans swept into power in the House on Tuesday despite spending about 16% less on TV ads than Democrats, who lost control of at least 60 seats. That efficiency, however, didn't carry over into the Senate races.

The GOP message -- less government, spending cuts and displeasure with health-care reform -- clearly resonated, especially in the nation's slumping Midwestern core, where the party's gains were particularly pronounced. But the deciding factor was not necessarily better advertising. It was the simple fact that Republicans are not Democrats, said one analyst.

The "GOP had the built-in advantage of not being the incumbents, thus allowing them to be more focused and unified with their message," said Evan Tracey, president of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. "In short, the money deficit was offset by having a clear message that they could hammer: 'We're not them.'"

Democratic candidates and affiliated groups spent $142 million on TV ads in House races through late October compared with $119 million by Republicans and pro-GOP groups, The New York Times reported, citing data from Campaign Media Analysis Group. In the Senate, however, the GOP had to spend more for its gains -- and still fell short of a majority. Republicans spent $159 million compared with $120 million by Democrats. (The figures, which do not include local cable TV spots, could shift as more donations are reported.)

The ultra-conservative tea party brought energy to the Republican side, and several candidates aligned with the movement cruised to victory, including Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate race and multiple House candidates. But this newest of political brands might have been an overall drag on Republicans in the Senate, considering that the party lost winnable seats because tea party candidates were seen as too far out of the mainstream. Examples include Delaware, where Christine O' Donnell was trounced by Democrat Chris Coons, and Nevada, where Harry Reid battled anti-incumbency headwinds to beat Sharron Angle.

All told, the GOP spent an average of $497,908 in TV ads for each of the 239 House seats it won, compared with $759,358 per the 187 Democratic-won seats, with nine seats still undecided, as of the latest CNN projections. For a company, that kind of advertising efficiency edge would be deserving of awards. But in politics, it's more difficult to isolate the effectiveness of a particular ad or messaging strategy, said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University.

This year's election proves once again that quantity is not always the clincher.

In Connecticut, for example, former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, a Republican, lost the Senate race despite pouring at least $45 million of her own money into the race.

In California, businesswoman and GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman -- who helped build the eBay brand into a powerhouse -- had trouble selling her own candidacy, despite massive TV buys and a cadre of high-priced consultants at her side. She spent $160 million -- including $142 million of her personal wealth -- but lost by 13 points to Democrat Jerry Brown, who spent roughly $25 million. Outside groups spent an additional $26 million on behalf of Mr. Brown, and Ms. Whitman got $2.5 million. So, as of the latest tally, Ms. Whitman and her allies spent $52.12 for every vote, compared with $12.61 for Mr. Brown and his backers. (The figures will fluctuate as more ballots are counted and donations recorded.)

"Money can't buy you love is the big story out here," said Barbara O' Connor, director emeritus at California State University, Sacramento's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media. "[Ms. Whitman] oversaturated. It probably worked to her disadvantage."

But in other races, ads made a positive difference with the right message.

Consider the Michigan governor's race, where Republican businessman Rick Snyder was a relative unknown until his "one tough nerd" campaign in the GOP primary. Launched on Super Bowl Sunday last February, the ad emphasized his geeky roots -- he started reading Fortune magazine at age 8 -- and plugged his 10-point plan that's so detailed "no politician could even understand it."

Mr. Snyder, former president of Gateway, beat Democrat Virg Bernero by roughly 20 points. Mr. Snyder was originally seen as uncharismatic and the ad turned his dullness into a positive, said Matt Grossmann, political-science professor at Michigan State University. More importantly, it went viral.

"It was replayed on newscasts," Mr. Grossmann said. "It got him some national attention as a candidate and it did coincide somewhat with his pitch that he is a business executive that has created jobs in the past."

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