Get ready: Campaign ad blitz is coming 7th District contest to close with flurry of TV, radio spots

Campaign 1996

February 17, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

For candidates in the race for the 7th Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the mission is clear.

The March 5 primary is little more than two weeks away. Some candidates in the chock-full field of 27 Democrats and five Republicans are better known than others, but name and message recognition generally are not high.

Political strategists say the three most effective ways for a candidate to overcome that handicap are television, radio and direct mail. So, get ready for the onslaught.

Over the next two weeks, voters will see lots of TV ads, but they'll have to tune to more candidate-affordable cable stations to find them. Radio spots will be plentiful, mostly on black-oriented stations. And targeted households will be deluged with literature in the mailboxes.

And, sad to say for all but two of the candidates, the media blitz may be for naught, because in such a short campaign, experts say the candidate who already has the largest established following likely will win.

"This is almost heresy among my colleagues to say this, but I don't think political advertising will make a lot of difference unless you are exposing something about the candidate that is not generally known," said Lenneal Henderson, a University of Baltimore political science professor.

"In these races where you basically have just three or four months to work with, it's the person with a machine, the person with the infrastructure in the community, who has the advantage," Dr. Henderson said.

But most of the candidates say they are taking no chances and plan to buy as much advertising on television, radio, direct mail, billboards and lawn signs as they can.

"There simply isn't any one of us that would be so well-known on a congressional districtwide basis that we don't need some help," said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a candidate whose home base lies in the Baltimore County part of the district.

And if political advertising does provide the edge in this campaign, then the advantage falls to the candidate who can raise a lot of money quickly.

"Money buys time, campaign time," said Herbert C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor who closely follows Baltimore politics. "If you can't meet them door-to-door, at receptions then you have to create time and that's TV time, direct mail."

Only a handful of candidates will be able to raise the money it will take to put their ads on the network affiliates. One of those is Del. Elijah E. Cummings, who will buy enough television time over the last 10 days of the campaign so that the average viewer will see his advertisement eight times, said his campaign manager, Julius Henson.

"Can you win this race without television? Some people think of course you can," Mr. Henson said. "You cannot win it without mail or television. You have to do one or both. We're prepared to do both."

But the medium can be a double-edged sword, said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, particularly if it seems like a candidate is spending a lot of money to buy it. "If people feel that the folk running are trying to buy the election, it could turn as many folk off as it turns on," he said.

Still, Dr. Reid, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore, acknowledged that the weekly television broadcast of his Sunday service helps him, even though "there is no mention of my candidacy at all."

"It does give us a name recognition, not only in the African-American community but throughout the Baltimore-Washington area," he said.

Conventional wisdom says a political candidate should wait until the last 10 days to two weeks of the campaign before running TV ads, advice that A. Dwight Pettit has ignored. Mr. Pettit, a lawyer who ran against Mr. Mfume in 1986, has been running commercials for more than a month.

"The TV folks have always told me don't waste your money on TV unless you can do it early and consistently and stay on," said Mr. Pettit, who is already well-known to some viewers from advertisements for his law firm.

Most of the television advertising action will be on cable, and not just because it is cheaper than the network affiliates.

"The cable viewers are somewhat more likely to vote. It's a way of targeting, particularly CNN," said Dr. Smith of Western Maryland College. Targeting likely voters is especially important in this election, in which turnout is expected to be very low.

Another effective way of targeting likely voters is through direct mail. Candidates can purchase lists of people who voted in past elections and those likely to vote in a primary.

"I'm not sure we will do broadcast [affiliate] TV. My consultants say that's not necessarily as effective as cable TV and direct mail," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. "Direct mail seems to be the most effective way of getting a quick message across."

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