California Congressional Races Wasted Money on TV, Says Analysis

 (Eva Hambach/Getty)

The modern history of political campaigns really begins with the advent of the 30-second television ad and its ability to blast out messages to a wide audience. But a new report suggests it's missing the mark, and flags two 2014 California contests as among the worst when it comes to wasting cash.

The premise of "50 States of Waste," a report from a partnership of Google and digital tech company Targeted Victory, is simple: What happens when viewers in one of the nation's 2010 television markets get bombarded with campaign ads for a race in which they can't vote? Their answer: It's wasted political cash.

Congressional districts, drawn in California by an independent commission and in other states by legislators, rarely align nicely with the broadcast footprint of television stations. And it presents candidates and their supporters with a quandary: How do you get the eyeballs we need for those 30-second ads?

The answer, say the analysts behind the report, is to overspend. In fact, their report concludes that a whopping 75 percent of the money spent on the typical congressional campaign in the U.S. is wasted by reaching out to voters who don't even live in the district.

"You'd never buy a tool that only works 25 percent of the time," said Targeted Victory's Michael Beach in a news release. "The waste in the average broadcast television buy should make any campaign think long and hard about how and where to apply their media budget."

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The two California contests that made the top 10 of mismatched spending were both on the national watch list in 2014.

The race in the 7th Congressional District pitted Rep. Ami Bera against GOP challenger Doug Ose.
The race in the 7th Congressional District pitted Rep. Ami Bera against GOP challenger Doug Ose. (50statesofwaste.com)

Coming in at number four on the list was the battle in the Sacramento region between Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, and GOP challenger Doug Ose. Bera won by less than a percentage point.

And number six on the list was the San Diego showdown between Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, and GOP challenger Carl DeMaio. Peters won by about 6,000 votes.

Both campaigns featured huge battles on TV stations in Sacramento and San Diego. In Bera's race, the challenge is that his 7th Congressional District sits inside a TV market that actually covers four congressional districts -- a geographical region from Modesto to South Lake Tahoe. That means a lot of the eyeballs Democrats and Republicans were paying for in 2014 couldn't actually vote for Bera or Ose, two candidates who both wanted to represent a portion of Sacramento County. The report concludes 82 percent of the TV money in the race was, as a result, wasted; of the $11 million spent, only about $2 million actually was needed for the viewers who could cast a ballot.

In the 52nd Congressional District, Rep. Scott Peters defeated GOP challenger Carl DeMaio.
In the 52nd Congressional District, Rep. Scott Peters defeated GOP challenger Carl DeMaio. (50statesofwaste.com)

In the Peters-DeMaio race, number six on the national list of the new analysis, about $2.6 million of the almost $11 million in TV spending actually impacted voters in the district -- translating, say the report's authors, into 76 percent of the money being wasted.

In truth, this is hardly surprising to political professionals. They've long known it as just one of the realities of campaigns, and as a result they budget their fundraising and spending accordingly. And it's important to point out that Google, one of the study's backers, would certainly benefit if more political efforts were focused on digital campaigning than on traditional broadcast outlets.

Still, it's a fascinating glimpse at what happens when targeted races spend oodles of cash in regions where TV signals span pretty large geographic regions. A number of California political experts have been predicting for several years that more and more money is going to start making its way to the Internet instead of radio and television, as the voter targeting can now be much more precise.

In the meantime, the real winners of the existing system continue to be the television stations and the campaign consultants whose fee often is based on the amount of money spent on buying up all of that airtime.