Something Weird is Happening with Political TV Ads in Florida — They Aren’t Working Very Well

Starting in April 2010, Rick Scott spent $3.48 million on TV in a four-week vacuum to start his GOP primary campaign for Governor.

Despite significant challenges in his bio (fraud — lots of fraud) and lacking any institutional support, those ads took him from 0 to 24% of the primary.

While he was the only candidate communicating through TV, his return on investment was about 7% of the vote for every million he spent on TV.

We are going to compare that to 2018, but inflation is a thing in currency and media, so we’ll use a conservative 6% as his return on investment per million as a baseline — spoiler alert, it’s not going to be pretty.

Some images from Rick Scott’s early TV ads in 2010

On the Democratic side, there wasn’t a competitive gubernatorial primary in Florida in 2010 (or 2014), but there was a competitive U.S. Senate primary between Democrats Rep. Kendrick Meek and billionaire Jeff Greene.

Greene (also with a colorful bio) started his TV on May 17, 2010 with $2.3 million over three weeks — and he had the airwaves all to himself.

Greene’s initial TV spend jumped him from 2% (Mason-Dixon) to 27%.

That means his return on TV investment was almost 11% per million he spent — with no ground game and almost no retail politics. To put that in 2018 terms, let’s call that about a 9.3% return on investment.

And the ad was terrible — just watch it.

Jeff Greene’s First TV advertisement in 2010

Now fast forward to 2018. Two pretty unknown politicians are up on TV again in Florida, one on each side, with no paid TV competition.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican, has spent $2.9 million and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat, has spent $6.01 million. Corcoran is an undeclared candidate, but wink wink.

Here is the thing: 
The return on that money for both has been mind-bogglingly low.

Levine’s high mark and most recent public polling shows him buying 13.2% of the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary — for a dismal 2.1% bump per million on TV. And, yes, it can get worse… Corcoran’s most recent polling shows him at 3% in the GOP Gubernatorial Primary. Yes, that means Corcoran’s return has been 1% of the Republican primary per million spent on TV.

To recap, and make all political consultants freak out a little:
GOP: Every $1 million on TV is buying 1% in 2018 compared to 6% in 2010. 
Dem: Every $1 million on TV is buying 2.2% compared to 9.3% in 2010.

How is this even possible?!? What is happening in Florida?!?

Speaker Richard Corcoran in his opening TV ad.

Well, first, it’s not 2010.

And, while these candidates have lots in common, they aren’t the same. Neither is the earned and social media competition, the ad-makers, ad-buyers, the media landscape, the timing of the ads in the cycle etc., etc.

But the trend was also there in 2016, when self-funder and political unknown Carlos Beruff spent at least $3 million on TV by himself to pull only about 17% of the U.S. Senate GOP primary vote (before Rubio changed his mind and sought re-election). His rate of return was less than 2010 Scott, even though he had a better biography and almost the exact same consultants.

So, you can dismiss all this and move on, but that doesn’t make the numbers and trend any less striking. Just like the rest of the story…

Here’s what happened in 2010…

Early 2010 Republican Frontrunner Bill McCollum

On the Republican side, Scott’s competition, Bill McCollum, eventually got up TV ads, positive and negative, but it wasn’t enough to win.

Here are the final TV/radio numbers during that primary:
Pro-Scott/Anti-McCollum: $39 million
Pro-McCollum/Anti-Scott: $13.9 million

Rick Scott won with 46% of the vote. McCollum earned 43%.

That means, imperfectly and entirely discounting any field programs (sorry), Scott’s spending efficiency was eventually about 1.2% of the vote per million on TV. McCollum’s landed somewhere around 3% per million on TV.

President Bill Clinton with Democratic Candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek

On the Democratic side, Meek finally went on air at the very end of July 2010 with a $420,000 negative ad buy. It was about time, because in one outlier by Quinnipiac, Greene was actually leading Meek +10.

Final TV spend numbers during that primary:
Pro-Greene/Anti-Meek: $13.9 million
Pro-Meek/Anti-Greene: $3.4 million

Kendrick Meek eventually won with 57%. Greene got 31%.

Imperfectly again and discounting any field programs (sorry, again), Greene’s spending efficiency ended up being 2.2% per million on TV. Meek, with a much better profile (plus President Obama and Clinton endorsements) and way less money (and more of a ground game, including a very expensive petition effort to get on the ballot) got almost 17% per every million on TV.

So what does all this mean for 2018?

(I’ve offered more in-depth analysis via email at kevincate.com.)

Well, I suspect we’ll see a lot more ads on TV and digital, because, as P.T. Barnum once said, “advertising is like learning — a little is a dangerous thing.”

At some point, with continued spending, these ads simply have to become overwhelming.

Because he started so early and is spending so liberally, if left alone on air with his current spending trajectory, Levine should get to a win number of 30-some percent of a four-way primary by June, at the latest.

The math doesn’t look nearly as optimistic for Corcoran. His opponents have too much money, too much earned media in the right place, and 1% per million on TV won’t cut it — nor can he sustain that spending to make it work.

All that doesn’t mean I think Levine has it locked up or Corcoran is sure to lose. Anything can happen. For instance, both early “frontrunners” (Adam Putnam and Gwen Graham) are now losing in the latest polling available — because of earned media, social media, and enthusiasm gaps.

More about that on a Twitter thread here.

So now what? You tell me.

Is this happening elsewhere?
Why do you think paid TV is having less of an impact in Florida?

***Disclosures***

1. I have access to a bunch of 2018 tracking metrics because I’m working with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — currently running second in the Democratic Primary for Governor.

2. Most of the 2010 media buy numbers are from Dr. Bob Crew and Slater Bayliss’ excellent book The 2010 Elections in Florida.

3. I write emails about mostly books and things that interest me, like this did, subscribe at kevincate.com.