As a fall drenching arrives, San Diegans are in the midst of a flood — of Mike Bloomberg TV commercials.
Since Monday, the former mayor of New York City has been promoting his Democratic candidacy for president on at least five local stations — KNSD (NBC San Diego), KFMB and the CW (CBS), KUSI and KSWB (Fox 5).
Fellow billionaire Tom Steyer also is buying time in San Diego, plunking down $8,200 for 11 spots on Fox 5. But Bloomberg is the whale, contracting for 397 one-minute ads costing $466,880 through early December. (After the agency commission, the stations will pocket nearly $400,000.)
Bloomberg can afford it, with an estimated net worth of $54 billion and initial TV buy of $30 million nationwide.
But is it worth it?
“Both these candidates have vast financial resources but equally vast deficits in public support to make up,” says Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political science professor. “They are going on the air early in the attempt to use their comparative advantage — their money — to combat the disadvantage of their late entries into a crowded field.”
Kousser says he can’t figure out why Steyer is focusing on Fox 5, but notes that the station doesn’t skew as conservative as Fox News does nationally (with unrelated ownership).
A year ago, Fox 5 and sister stations were acquired by Texas-based Nexstar Media Group, the biggest owner of TV stations in the nation. Fox 5 news sometimes features conservative subjects, however.
KUSI is owned by the politically conservative McKinnon family, and its coverage reflects a rightward tilt. So why would Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Bloomberg pay $90,000 for 98 spots on Channel 51?
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, who’s worked in San Diego public relations for more than three decades, says local TV viewers don’t grasp station politics the way they might a local newspaper’s editorial page or a national cable network.
“Discount this notion from the strategy,” she said. “These are simply great ratings performers with audiences Bloomberg and Steyer want to reach, and reach quickly. Local TV still remains a powerful vehicle to do so.”
She says television, especially local newscasts, reach an audience campaigns covet: Americans over 40.
“They can be counted on to go to the polls,” she said. “Younger voters are still a much less reliable audience.”
Veteran political consultant Tom Shepard, who started his San Diego-based shop in 1981, says Steyer and Bloomberg are the only candidates able to afford TV in California this early, and their money makes them potentially competitive in the state.
“They both desperately need to increase their name ID,” Shepard said. “While money isn’t as big an advantage in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire where much of the campaigning is person-to-person and neither Steyer nor Bloomberg are competitive in those states, it’s huge in [California], where TV is still the most impactful way to run a statewide campaign.”
And with the state primary moved up to March 3, a good performance here could catapult either or both into contention, he said.
Why are Dems buying time on conservative stations?
“I expect they are buying a lot of news adjacencies in the case of KUSI and sports in the case of Fox 5. In the new world of streaming services and DVRs, viewers record much of the content and fast-forward through commercials – with the exception of news and sports,” he said.
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, says it’s not early to spend in California and noted the number of state delegates available [nearly 500] for the party’s July 2020 national convention in Milwaukee.
He said that even conservative TV stations probably have viewers without a party preference, “and the Democratic Party allows voters without a stated party preference to vote in our primary. They have to request a Democratic Party ballot.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy noted that San Francisco’s Steyer, 62, and Bloomberg, a 77-year-old media mogul, are self-funding their races.
“While that may work on the Republican side, it is frowned upon on the left,” he said.
Tony Manolatos is president of Manolatos Nelson Murphy Inc. and has worked in PR and political consulting for 10 years after 13 years as a newspaper reporter, including The San Diego Union-Tribune.
He takes exception with labeling KUSI and Fox 5 conservative.
“I think they’re both just good local news providers and a lot of San Diegans across the political spectrum turn to both of those stations for local news,” he said.
He says he recently attended two focus groups and the only broadcast outlet mentioned multiple times as the primary source of local news was KUSI.
“The voters in those groups are all from San Diego County and they are Democrats, Republicans and decline-to-state voters,” Manolatos said.
- Source: San Diego station KNSD (NBC San Diego, Channel 39) Political files
- Source: San Diego station KGTV (ABC, Channel 10) Political files
- Source: San Diego station KFMB (CBS, Channel 8) Political files
- Source: San Diego station KSWB (Fox 5) Political files
- Source: San Diego station KUSI (Channel 51) Political files
But he agreed with others on why billionaire White House hopefuls are targeting California.
“They each have a lot of ground to cover to catch the front-runners, so that’s likely why,” he said via email.
Lou Manso is president and CEO of The Media Buying Company Inc., a La Jolla-based ad agency with over 30 years of media buying and planning experience.
“Given their position, I feel that I would need to make an impact to break through the clutter,” he said, “and if I had the budget, this is the way that I would probably do it. In advertising, frequency (repetition) is a very important component.”
Bloomberg buying KUSI and Fox 5 doesn’t raise his eyebrows.
“Many things go into making a selection — strategy, budget, availability, demographics and price among them,” Manso said. “As far as Dems buying conservative stations, if I were making the buy, I would buy them to deliver the message to [the] other side. I think that would be an important piece of my strategy.”
Falkenthal of Falcon Valley Group says she sees polls indicating that more than half of Democratic primary voters haven’t made up their minds on a White House nominee.
“Of the half that do, a majority say their choice isn’t firm,” she says. “Only 11 percent (according to a CNN cited poll) have a firm choice. There’s still a lot of room for new candidates to win people over. But they have to move fast, and local broadcast buys are the way to go.”