Obama Wants to Avoid Health-Care-Reform Ad War

Dems Push to Get Bill Passed Before TV Viewers Return to Sofas

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If supporters of health-care legislation seem like they're in a hurry to get a bill passed, it might be because they're hoping to avoid a costly ad war they would stand a good chance of losing.

"The Democrats in Washington are clearly hoping for a short fight," said Evan Tracey, president of the TNS Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, in a blog post. "This White House demonstrates time and time again its mastery of understanding the media landscape."

So far, issue advertising around health-care reform hasn't erupted into the sort of spending spree media outlets might have hoped for. It has trailed behind lobbying and grassroots efforts, and has targeted opinion leaders on cable news networks and focused on moderate states with swing votes such as Louisiana, Maine and Nebraska.

"The next three weeks, from an advertising standpoint, will decide whether this thing spirals ahead of $100 million or stays at $50 million," said Mr. Tracey in a phone conversation. Television issue advertising related to health care has reached $34.4 million in 2009, from Jan. 1 through July 14, according to CMAG. (While there are select print and online buys in issue advertising, among other marketing, those efforts do not really affect the bottom line.)

An eye on August
If a health-care bill isn't passed before the August recess, that opens the door for opponents to appeal to the public.

"I don't think [the Obama administration] wants this to be played out when the American consumer or voter is coming inside to watch TV," said Mr. Tracey.


One reason is that lack of speed is the enemy to something so big and complicated.

Brian Donahue, partner and exec-VP at Jamestown Associates, a Washington-based political consulting and public affairs firm that works for Republican efforts, believes that if Congress goes to recess without voting on reform, a lot of new and emotional creative will crop up in issue advertising. The recess is a time for Congressional leaders to return to their districts and meet with their constituents, Mr. Donahue said. If there is a contentious debate going on during that recess, advertising has an opportunity to "stir the pot" and mobilize the public to speak with their representatives.

This all might be true, but Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, does not think that the potential onslaught of advertising is a chief factor motivating President Barack Obama to push health-care reform before the August recess. "It's just smart politics to move legislation quickly when you have the votes," she said, adding that she does not believe the same organized opposition to reform exists today as it did back in 1993, when President Bill Clinton first attempted reform. In that case, industry groups rallied together; today, she said, Mr. Obama has embraced most of those former opposition groups.

Lessons learned
Adds Trevor Parry-Giles, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland: "One of the problems the Clinton folks faced was a lengthy process. Not only in terms of formulating the actual proposal but then it terms of getting it through Congress," and that opened the door for more advertising. Mr. Giles thinks that the Obama administration did incorporate that lesson in their calculations.

Joe Erwin, president of Erwin-Penland in Greenville, S.C., and former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, agrees. "I'm confident that the Obama team has gone to school on that and won't repeat those mistakes," he said. "They understand that decisiveness and action is important. The longer you let something string out, the more people can poke holes in it."

That may be especially important as the American voter, which has seen few signs that a hugely expensive stimulus plan has done any good, grows increasingly skeptical that the country can afford to pay for health-care reform. Just 40% of voters are for the 1,018-page health-care bill introduced by the House Ways and Means Committee on July 14, according to a recent study by Zogby International in conjunction with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. That study also revealed that while four in five Americans agree that mounting health-care costs are hurting businesses, they have not reached consensus on how to raise funds for the estimated $1 trillion over the next 10 years that reform is expected to cost.

And only 35% of Americans support a government health insurance plan to compete with private insurers, according to a July national survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports. That support is down 13% from a June survey.

And it's that divide where advertising stands to tug at the hearts and minds of American voters.

"You can bet that the longer this would carry out, the insurance companies -- maybe more than any other sector -- would mount campaigns to try and stop it," said Mr. Erwin.

Ms. Jamieson said issue advertising can be "very effective," and cited an Annenberg study on Senator John McCain's tobacco bill of 1998 that clearly showed the efficacy of media spend on shaping political opinion and voting outcome.

Or one could simply recall the "Harry & Louise" spots that helped derail the Clinton health-care initiative.

But for now, the spending on advertising has yet to ramp up.

Who's spending?
Most of the outlay, $19.7 million, falls under a category that Mr. Tracey calls "generalized health care" that includes spend by groups such as the AARP and PhRMA, who are generally in favor of reform. And at $9.7 million, ad spend in favor of Mr. Obama's plan is over double that of the opposition's spend, which is $4.7 million.

Lobbying in the health-care sector, by contrast, has reached nearly $127 million in the first three months of 2009 alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan lobbying and influence tracking group. The cost of lobbying in the health sector surpasses all other sectors, including the financial, real estate, and insurance sector, which had previously reigned at the top.

"Just about every industry and company within that broad health-care sector that has a vested interest in this debate is doing most everything they can, particularly financially, to insure that their voice is heard by the people who are going to be making their decisions at the end of the day," said a CRP spokesperson, who added that lobbying for health on Capitol Hill is on the path to exceed last year's annual spend, which was $483.9 million.

So will the bill pass before August?

"My sense, being in this business for 20 years is that this is too big to happen quickly," Mr. Tracey said, before quickly adding, "but I think you have to throw conventional wisdom out. ... This is an aggressive White House."

"I think it's very clear and very strategic to move this forward and push for the vote in August," said Mr. Erwin.

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