Seeing Spots: Campaign Advertising in the 2009 Virginia and New Jersey Gubernatorial Races



Campaign ads provide a window into any election. Who are the candidates? What do they stand for? What issues are at stake in the race? Campaign ads help to define the candidates, set the agenda of the campaign, and provide the critical information–wrapped up in a bundle of fear or pride or humor or some other emotional appeal–that many citizens rely upon as they strive to make sense of a sometimes perplexing decision-making process. What does campaign advertising have to tell us about this year’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey?

Advertising in the Commonwealth

In Virginia, Republican Robert F. McDonnell faces off against Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in a re-match of their 2005 squeaker of a state attorney general race, which McDonnell won by 360 votes out of almost two million cast. During a hard-fought Democratic primary in which Deeds defeated two strong opponents (McDonnell enjoyed a clear primary field), the Democratic Governors Association spent close to $3 million on ads targeting McDonnell. (The one disadvantage of having no primary opponents is that one is essentially a sitting duck for attacks from the other side.)

Since the end of June, McDonnell and his allies have out-advertised their opponents by close to $1.8 million. This includes an estimated $2.3 million spent on more than 4,000 ads by Virginia Common Sense, funded by the Republican Governors Association, along with just over $100,000 spent by the NRA Political Victory Fund (according to ad-tracking data provided by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG). In all, McDonnell’s camp has spent almost $7.5 million to broadcast more than 16,000 ads between June 24 and October 17. In contrast, during this period the Deeds camp spent approximately $5.7 million (including $328,000 from the Virginia Education Association) to broadcast 12,600 ads throughout the Commonwealth.

In all, between late June and mid-October, Virginia voters saw 28,980 ads broadcast, at a cost of more than $13.2 million. In the Roanoke media market, where the largest number of ads has been broadcast (more than a fifth of all Virginia advertising this year), the candidates have been almost evenly matched: McDonnell and his allies have aired 2,938 ads, compared to 2,933 for Deeds. In each of the other six media markets, the McDonnell camp has out-advertised Deeds by at least two hundred spots. In Richmond, for example, McDonnell and the RGA-funded Common Sense Virginia PAC have together broadcast 3,010 ads, while Deeds and the Virginia Education Association have aired 2,146 ads.

And in the key Washington, D.C. media market, where both candidates have sought to reach Northern Virginia voters with their messages about transportation, jobs, taxes, and social issues, the candidates and their supporters have broadcast a combined 5,489 ads, second in total volume only to Roanoke. However, while the two sides were evenly matched in Roanoke, in the D.C. market McDonnell has enjoyed a significant advantage: Between late June and mid-October, the Deeds campaign broadcast 2,144 ads, while McDonnell and his allies aired 3,345. This is a significant gap in a part of the state that will be critical to the outcome of the race.

Deeds’ ads have featured strong attacks on his opponent, in particular drawing attention to statements about working women, abortion, and homosexuality in McDonnell’s 1989 graduate school thesis. In a series of ads in heavy rotation throughout the late summer and early fall, Deeds sought to portray McDonnell’s statements and actions while in office as extreme and outside of the mainstream particularly when it came to the interests of women (to view one example, click here). Deeds has sought to tie McDonnell to the economic policies of George W. Bush, while associating himself with the popular United State Senator Mark Warner (the ad can be viewed here). More recently, Deeds has highlighted his endorsement by the Washington Post, repeating a strategy that some analysts believe helped him win the primary by appealing to Post-reading voters in Northern Virginia (that ad can be viewed here).

Just as Deeds has consistently sought to draw contrasts with his Republican rival, McDonnell has broadcast his share of hard-hitting contrasts, focusing on transportation, taxes, and jobs (a transportation ad can be seen here, an example on taxes is here, and a jobs spot can be viewed here). Like Deeds, McDonnell has broadcast a series of positive ads as well, a number of which prominently feature members of his family (examples can be seen here and here).

The Lay of the Land in the Garden State

In New Jersey, served almost entirely by the Philadelphia and New York City media markets, there has been somewhat less advertising than in Virginia, but at a much higher cost. Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine faces Republican challenger Christopher Christie and Independent Chris Daggett. In all, the candidates and their allies broadcast just over 20,000 campaign ads between May 13 and October 17 (a period that covers some primary advertising by the candidates). Given the higher costs in the New York and Philly media markets compared to those in Virginia, this represents an estimated $33.1 million in spending. Of this, the Corzine campaign is responsible for more than half, having spent almost $16.7 million to broadcast more than 9,000 ads. With help from allies such as the Mid-Atlantic Leadership Fund, New Jersey Progress, and the New Jersey Education Association, Corzine’s advertising since May totals 10,362 spots, at an estimated cost of $19.2 million.

In contrast, Republican Chris Christie–now running about even with Corzine after enjoying a sizable lead for much of the summer–has spent a total of $8.5 million since May to broadcast 3,800 ads (again, some of this total includes primary ads). Fortunately for Christie, the Republican Governors Association has spent more than $5 million to broadcast an additional 5,700 ads on Christie’s behalf. Still, Christie lags behind Corzine, with a total 9,578 ads through October 17, to Corzine’s 10,362.

Campaign advertising is where one encounters the most serious and the most frivolous claims, and where the frivolous can become serious. In New Jersey, a single line from a Corzine ad (which can be seen here) has sparked a good deal of controversy, proving once again that ads can be a catalyst for significant campaign developments. In a spot broadcast just over 400 times (not much, compared with other Corzine ads that aired 800, 900, or more than 1000 times), the Corzine team asked the following:

“If you drove the wrong way down a one-way street, causing an accident and putting the victim in a trauma center… would you get away without a ticket? Chris Christie did. . .Christie threw his weight around as U.S. Attorney, and got off easy.”

Christie’s supporters immediately called foul, arguing that the ad–which featured a substantial Christie emerging from the back seat of an SUV–was a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to attack the Republican candidate’s appearance. Asked whether he thought Christie was fat, the follicularly-challenged Corzine responded, “Am I bald?” For his part, Christie has referred to his portrayal in Corzine’s ads as “character assassination.”

To be sure, advertising in the Garden State has focused on a range of issues, including the economy, health insurance reform, and taxes. Corzine has sought to associate himself explicitly with Barack Obama, while connecting Christie with George W. Bush. And, not surprisingly, both candidates have accused one another of engaging in that age-old boogeyman: negative campaigns.

Will Corzine’s advertising advantage to-date enable him to pull ahead of his rival Chris Christie? Will Creigh Deeds be able to once again parlay a Washington Post endorsement into electoral victory, or will Bob McDonnell maintain his lead in the polls and win the election? Stay tuned.

Paul Freedman is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia specializing in media and political communication.

Evan Tracey is the founder of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a media research company for politics and public affairs advertising expenditure data.