Seeking Media Coverage, Democrats Place Tiny Ad Buys

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Call it an exercise in making every dollar count: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book this week, buying radio ads in tiny amounts in hopes of earning local media coverage. And, despite Republicans' best efforts, it actually worked.

The DCCC's ad buy targeted 25 incumbent Republicans, accusing them of voting to gut Medicare by supporting Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget proposal. But Democrats put less than $6,000 behind the radio spots. In some districts, the committee plopped down money that wouldn't make a respectable power lunch in Washington; the committee spent only $40 in Rep. Larry Bucshon's district in southwest Indiana, and just $60 in districts in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois and South Dakota.

Such small buys aren't intended to influence an electorate. Instead, they're aimed at influencing the journalists in those districts; "Democrats target Canseco over Medicare," the San Antonio Express-News wrote, of Rep. Quico Canseco (R-Texas). Those journalists won't bother to check and see how much Democrats paid for those ads. In fact, the vast majority of voters in Canseco's district have almost no chance of hearing the DCCC's ads, on which Democrats spent all of $240.

This time, a Republican-friendly organization, American Crossroads, called Democrats on their feint. The group's ad buyers looked into the DCCC's purchases, and spokesman Jonathan Collegio shared the minuscule results with reporters.

"For the DCCC's next major initiative, we hear they plan to hand out balloons and refrigerator magnets in northwestern Pennsylvania," he joked. "Recipients have to supply their own helium, though, and are expected to contribute $25 for the experience."

Still, even a few bucks can influence local reporters (And a few larger publications who picked up the story too). At least 14 local news outlets wrote up the ad buys, and few of them went back to note the relative pittance Democrats put behind them -- including local papers that cover Reps. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), Bill Young (R-Fla.), Allen West (R-Fla.), Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) (more on the Florida incumbents here), Tom Latham (R-Iowa), Steve King (R-Iowa), Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.), Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) (A two-fer!), Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.), Canseco, Ryan and Sean Duffy (R-Wis.).

A Democratic strategist familiar with the buy said it would still be effective in targeting listeners, but wasn't necessarily a campaign-style message. What they won't say is that the goal is to buy earned media. And it's a game both sides play: We remember early ads last cycle, all the way back in November 2009, that Republicans ran against then-Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) and John Spratt (D-S.C.). The ad buys were smaller than most people pay for their first car (A few folks at the NRCC got pretty mad at us for reporting on their small buys at the time).

Regardless, count this as a win for both Democrats and Republicans. Crossroads and the National Republican Congressional Committee scored points for dinging the DCCC, but the DCCC now has 14 newspaper articles it can refer to in television spots next Fall. When you hear an ominous voice declaring some Republican voted to destroy Medicare, followed by a small citation on screen, remember: The money it cost Democrats to win that citation is less than ordinary folks carry around in their wallets on a daily basis.

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Jessica Taylor and Reid Wilson

Jessica Taylor is editor of National Journal's House Race Hotline. Reid Wilson is editor-in-chief of National Journal's Hotline.

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