W's secret weapons: Scarborough, Nielsen

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New research that unearthed "missing Republicans" and flouted longstanding GOP media strategy not only helped George W. Bush win the election, but will revolutionize the party's buying patterns for years to come. It could change the Democrats' marketing strategy too.

An extensive analysis of Scarborough Research and Nielsen Media syndicated research conducted for the Republican National Committee by National Media found a surprise GRP or "grip gap" in traditional GOP TV buying.

TV: too many dems

The biggest reason the Scarborough research was so interesting was that Scarborough has been not only surveying attitudes, but it has been asking about both party affiliation and recent voting patterns for more than a decade. The research, which took more than two years to conduct, revealed that since Republicans on average watch less TV than Democrats, traditional GOP media buying patterns reached too many Democrats.

The finding, according to a top Bush campaign official and the campaign's media buyers, caused the Bush team to shift tactics and counter with far lower levels of spot TV and far more radio and national cable.

"When you just buy regular spot markets, Democrats can affect more viewers," said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist of the Bush campaign. "If we bought the same schedules, they have an advantage. If [we just bought normal] spot, we would have 14% to 15% less impact than do Democrats."

In addition, "Democrats have a tendency to be a higher percent of the audience for local and national news than do Republicans," he said. Republicans, meanwhile, tend to favor shows like "Law and Order," "CSI," and "Jag" and select sports programming and cable channels.

`simpsons' factor?

The research showed Republicans prefer college football over pro football; disputed conventional wisdom that weekends are a bad time to buy because people aren't home (Republicans are) and showed some other surprises, including that Fox's lineup of "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Simpsons" does well with young Republican men.

As a result, the Bush campaign, which spent 95% of its ad dollars in 2000 on spot TV, allocated only 75% of the budget to spot in 2004. The other 25% went toward reaching missing Republicans through the national cable and radio. Mr. Dowd said the campaign spent $20 million on national cable and $12 million on radio-which he characterized as the most extensive radio outlay for political advertising in the modern campaign era.

Mr. Dowd touted the shift as Bush's secret weapon. "I don't know if [Sen. John Kerry's campaign] ever knew why we were doing it," he said.

Republicans said the buying strategy stemmed from the discovery after the 2000 election that Scarborough interviews of more than 200,000 people a year in 75 markets included party affiliation questions. They felt that could be far more indicative of trends than political polls conducted with hundreds of people. National Media not only overlaid Nielsen data on Scarborough's but went to Scarborough to get detailed individual interview research and created a matrix by market of GOP voters by age, sex and other demographics to determine the programs they did and didn't watch.

Will Feltus, National Media's senior VP-research and planning, said the research results were totally unexpected. "We started to plow into the data hopeful we could get a 10% to 20% increase in [spot buying] efficiency," he said. "After we worked with the data, we [instead] found out we were starting 15 points behind. The typical [GOP] TV buying schedule does better among high-turnout Democrats than among high-turnout Republicans."

The campaign turned to cable as an alternative. It bought 12 cable channels, among them Golf Network, A&E, Speedvision, Outdoor Life, ESPN, HGTV and TLC, among others, along with country-music channels. No national cable had been bought by the campaign in 2000.

It also turned extensively to radio, which John Stewart, the former National Media radio buyer who bought for the campaign, said was the most extensive outlay he had ever seen for any political race. Bush's ads ran on Christian-format radio stations from March, and the team bought not only A and B counties, but C and D county stations. It bought farm-oriented programming and Hispanic programming, outspending the Kerry campaign by 2 to 1 on radio and by 25% on Hispanic radio. "They let us own radio. While we were matched on TV from March through June, we owned the radio medium with precision and frequency and used it in a way to break through."

He said that in the future radio is likely to be a more important focus of campaign spending. "TV no longer delivers what it used to."

Mark Mellman, pollster for Sen. Kerry, said the Democrats "had sophisticated data, too," noting the Democrats also bought the Scarborough data and did a special survey of Nielsen households. One thing the survey showed: Neither CNN nor Fox News Channel were good buys for either campaign because most of the people watching them were already decided.

Kerry approach

The Kerry campaign, he said, didn't buy national cable because it felt running ads outside battleground states wasted resources. Instead it bought local cable based on the surveys it had. Mr. Mellman said the campaign felt it didn't need as much radio because it used radio more strategically, relying on TV for larger markets and using radio in smaller markets and on Hispanic and urban stations to drive home special messages there.

He rejected the suggestion that GOP tactics were far ahead of Democratic tactics or they would change much.

But Evan Tracey, who tracks media spending for TNS Media Intelligence's Competitive Media Analysis Group, said the Bush campaign research could be revolutionary. "What Republicans did this time was demographically oriented. They are the first guys in this business to have gotten close to getting around to the question of how much is enough [TV]," he said.

Mr. Feltus said the Bush campaign also used the data in other ways. He said it shed light on Sen. Kerry's goose-hunting outing near the campaign's close. "The Scarborough data said you can reach hunters through fishing, but Kerry didn't know that. If he had gone out to fish, he could have accomplished the same thing without a lot of bloody hands."

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