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TV's Tight Grip on Campaigns Is Weakening

The once-overwhelming influence of television advertising on political campaigns is declining, Democratic and Republican leaders say, leading them to embrace aggressively old-fashioned campaign tools like telephone calls and door-knocking in this year's Congressional elections.

While candidates continue to devote most of their resources to television, they say the power of commercials to affect an election's outcome is being diluted by the glut of cable television stations, the popularity of such commercial-free premium networks as HBO and the anesthetizing frequency and similarity of political advertisements.

Several campaign strategists said the effectiveness of TV spots had been blunted by the ability of voters to fast-forward past annoying hard-edged attacks. They said they were worried that this would become only more problematic with the advent of a new digital recording technology that lets viewers filter out all advertising with a stroke on a keypad.

All this has stirred considerable unease among strategists struggling to adjust to what they describe as a potentially far-reaching change in the way campaigns are fought, introduced by the same medium that revolutionized politics 40 years ago. The evidence of that can be seen across the nation this fall, as both major parties increase their investments and emphasis on voter registration, identification and turnout.

"We are moving into a new world, and I think the traditional model that we have gone on for 30 years, jamming millions of dollars into a television set and hope you drive enough folks to the polls on Election Day, is a passing method," said Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who is the House minority leader. "The amount of television and the proliferation of television channels is lessening the importance of television advertising over time. And there is the saturation factor: People cycle after cycle see these ads and they are just tuning them out."

Blaise Hazelwood, the political director of the Republican National Committee, said that television would remain central to Republican efforts, but that her party was now studying how to adjust to a diminishing of television advertisements' effectiveness, which she predicted would continue with the changing technology.

"I'm not advocating that we do less TV," Ms. Hazelwood said. "But we cannot get away any more without knocking on people's doors. It is absolutely critical."

Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University, contended that a sharp drop in viewers for network and affiliate stations in the past decade had further complicated matters for political strategists who rely on television.

"There is a law of diminishing returns on television ads," Mr. West said. "It becomes difficult to break through the clutter, and at this point, there is a lot more clutter out there."

The development reflects a problem Madison Avenue has faced for nearly a decade: the proliferation of new forms of media, like the Internet and cable television, has forced commercial advertisers to find new ways to reach consumers. Advertisers have turned to e-mail promotions and event marketing to try to make an impact.

For political parties and candidates, it has been a reversion to old-style forms of politics.

In the new high-profile Third Congressional District outside Las Vegas, union workers with palmtop computers will begin door-to-door canvassing this week, interviewing residents about the issues that could influence their votes, and taking note of the candidate they support.

Each night, the information will be synched with a state A.F.L.-C.I.O. central computer for use on Election Day, to get out the vote for the candidate the unions support, a high-technology variation on one of the oldest organizing tricks in the book.

In just two years, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised its spending on get-out-the-vote efforts by a third, said Howard Wolfson, the executive director of the committee. He said the committee was responding in part to the success - noted by both parties - of the get-out-the-vote operations on behalf of Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

"One of the lessons of the Gore campaign is that an outstanding ground game can really make a difference," Mr. Wolfson said. "TV is not as dominant as it once was."

Josh Wachs, the chief operating officer of the Democratic National Committee, said that this year Democrats were handing out sample ballots in dozens of languages across the nation in an effort to draw new immigrant voters into their camp.

Last December, in the Houston mayor's race, the party provided 115 vans, each able to carry 15 passengers, to take voters to the polls, an operation the Democrats expect to repeat this fall.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republican National Committee and the White House created a "72-Hour Task Force" this year after examining the outcome of elections in which Democrats had made a particular effort at turnout. The task force concluded that the Democrats had "done a better job of motivating and turning out their voters" and urged the adaptation of a program to pull Republicans to the polls with mailings, telephone calls and home visits.

"We underperformed in the last 72 hours/final stages of the last two elections," the task force said in contending that television commercials were no longer enough.

"The Democrats and especially the unions have been very effective in the past year in organizing grass-roots, bottom-line politics," said Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant with ties to the White House. "I'm seeing it all over the country: Republicans are catching up. Republicans are getting much stronger at neighborhood politics."

The trend has been acknowledged, if grudgingly, by campaign media consultants who - not incidentally - are usually paid a percentage of a campaign's television advertising budget.

"That's like asking Detroit, `How do you feel about public transportation?' " David Axelrod, a media consultant, said when asked about the newfound efficiency of grass roots. "It might be marginally harder to reach people through television these days. But I still think it's an important tool."

A Republican media consultant dismissed the new interest by the party as little more than a fad. "It's good, but it's marginal," the consultant said. "I don't think McDonald's ever came knocking on your door."

Still, several political strategists argued that there would be even more impetus to turn to grass-roots organizing in the years to come. That's because the campaign finance law, which takes effect after November, is expected to reduce the amount of money raised by candidates and parties. Grass-roots efforts are more effective, since they can be directed at a smaller slice of voters, and less expensive than television advertisements, something officials at both parties said they were taking into account now.

The Democratic Party has historically put more of an emphasis on grass-roots effort, in part because of the party's longtime affiliation with labor unions, which provided the resources and staff, like telephone banks, for reaching voters.

Steve Rosenthal, political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said that even unions had moved over time to television advertisements, because it was much easier. But he said the unions were going back to the streets.

He recalled sitting in on focus groups of voters in two states with big political contests this year, as the interviewer nudged people to discuss their reaction to political spots on their local TV stations.

"What was striking was that in those states, they reported seeing almost nothing," Mr. Rosenthal said.


Adam Nagourney, The New York Times

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times - September 5, 2002. All rights reserved.