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September 16, 2014

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Politics:

Barrage of political advertising in Las Vegas sets a record

No one comes here expecting anything in moderation. But to turn on the television these days is to shatter even Las Vegas-size notions of excess.

More political commercials have been broadcast in this city than anywhere else, giving it the dubious distinction of being the most saturated media market in the most expensive year in American politics.

And late last week, when the count passed 73,000, Las Vegas set the record as the place with the most televised campaign advertisements in a single year.

With the influx here and in other battleground states certain to grow in the final three weeks of the campaign, this election is surpassing 2008 both in the sheer volume of ads and in the money spent. Media experts estimate that about $2.5 billion was spent nationwide on political advertising in 2008 and that this year, the total could grow by a third, to as much as $3.3 billion.

Commercials are flying at Nevadans at a rate of 10,000 per week. At least 98 ads are in rotation, coming from super PACs, various Democratic and Republican committees, congressional candidates, local candidates and, of course, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Local stations are shaving minutes off their news programs to accommodate the crush. Breaks during many popular network shows such as “Saturday Night Live” are sold out between now and Election Day. And Las Vegans find themselves at such a desperation point that some are longing to return to the days when ads from personal injury lawyers and discount furniture stores dominated the local news.

“I hate ’em, I hate ’em, I hate ’em,” said Debbie Markland, 62, a cocktail waitress at a downtown casino who now mutes the television in exasperation during every commercial break. “I can’t wait until this election is over.”

Las Vegas, home not just to a closely fought presidential race but to competitive House and Senate races, as well, is the center of a nationwide advertising binge. Waves of ads, many of them paid for with super PAC money, also are cluttering the airwaves in states such as North Dakota, Montana and Nebraska, where the presidential candidates have not set foot.

The political ads in Las Vegas are as caustic as they are ceaseless. This candidate took a trip to Italy and stuck you, the taxpayer, with the bill. That candidate will eliminate federal money for your annual mammogram. This candidate thinks Social Security is a pyramid scheme. And that candidate would cut federal programs that help your autistic child.

The number of campaign commercials for the 2012 elections is on track to far exceed what ran four years ago, according to Kantar Media. A tally taken four weeks before Election Day found that campaign ads had run on local television and national cable more than 2.7 million times, compared with 3.5 million in all of 2008.

Experts consider volume to be a more accurate gauge of an advertising war’s intensity than money spent because advertising rates vary widely from city to city. A $1 million buy in Madison, Wis., for example, is not the same as one in Miami.

The more than $3 billion that Kantar Media estimates will be spent on political advertising this year is roughly equal to the amount set aside in a government settlement with major banks to help homeowners who owe more than their homes are worth.

In the presidential race alone, the campaigns and their allies have reserved about $70 million in commercial time between Oct. 15 and Election Day. Of that, $5 million is just for Nevada and its six electoral votes. Even larger amounts are being spent in places such as Ohio and Florida, where the high cost of advertising gives campaigns and super PACs less punch for their dollar.

Nevada, with its relatively low advertising rates and just two media markets that reach most of the state, is beating even the most hotly contested battlegrounds in the number of ads broadcast. Reno, the state’s No. 2 market, ranks fourth in total saturation, just behind Cleveland (second) and Denver (third).

“There are battleground states, and then there’s Vegas,” said Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media.

“We have a joke around here,” said Lisa Howfield, the general manager of KSNV, the NBC station. “Pretty soon we’re going to have such long commercial breaks that people are going to tune in and all they’ll hear is: ‘Hello, welcome to News 3. And goodbye.’ ”

Howfield has stretched some of her station’s commercial breaks far past the usual two minutes, to three minutes. She said inventory of advertising time is 90 percent sold through Election Day and that some programs such as “Jeopardy,” a perennial favorite for political advertisers because it reaches many older people, were oversold.

Many people in Las Vegas say they feel overwhelmed.

“It’s like brainwashing,” said Marques Hill, 27, a bartender.

“It’s sickening,” said Steve Culp, 58, a casino manager.

“The money is obscene. Obscene,” said Jimmie Johns, a retiree. “I have never witnessed a campaign like this one. And I’m 67.”

One question that grows with each dollar spent is whether voters are being swayed anymore, especially when many say the ads they see now are merely noise canceling out more noise.

Scholars who have looked at the impact of campaign ads have found that for races such as those for House seats in which name recognition often makes all the difference, ads matter. But for presidential candidates, the case is not as strong.

And this record-breaking year, ironically enough, may provide the most convincing argument yet that all the advertising that money can buy ultimately has little effect.

“There are always lots of efforts to say after the fact, ‘Oh, it must be due to the ads,’” said Diana C. Mutz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who recently wrote a paper for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that argues that advertising does little to alter public opinion in presidential races.

“TV is great for name recognition, but it’s much harder to actually change someone’s mind who has an opinion on the matter,” she said. “And that’s where you find that this huge amount of spending isn’t commensurate with the impact of political ads.”

“You could buy votes for what they’re spending and it would probably have more impact.”

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