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Now Airing on the Local News in Tennessee: Ads for Georgia Candidates

New York Times
December 25, 2020 -

The Georgia Senate runoffs are so awash in political cash that the ad wars are spilling into neighboring states.

Television viewers in Atlanta are bearing the brunt of an advertising assault that is expected to make the two contests the most expensive Senate races in American history. But a seemingly endless supply of money, a shrinking supply of persuadable voters and the high stakes - control of the United States Senate - are driving the candidates and super PACs across state lines in hopes of winning an edge ahead of the January 5 elections.

From Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jacksonville, Fla., out-of-state media markets that intersect with even a tiny fraction of prized Georgia voters are being pummeled with advertising. One postage-stamp-size media market that is based in Alabam's seventh largest city and that overlaps with just one of Georgia's 159 counties has seen more than a half-million dollars in political ads booked there.

"Any way you look at it, the money coming in, it blows your mind," said Gregg Acuff, the general sales manager at WRCB in Chattanooga. "I've been here 25 years and I've never seen it like this."

All told nearly $35 million in advertising has been aired or reserved since Nov. 3 in markets based in four states surrounding Georgia, according to data from AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.

And almost by definition most of the money is being wasted. That is because most of the people watching those ads don't live or vote in Georgia.

"Our viewers in Tennessee are tired of seeing it,� admitted Mr. Acuff. Still, super PACs are paying $7,000 for a 30-second ad on the station's 6 p.m. local news broadcast this week, even as Mr. Acuff estimated that Georgians make up only 25 percent of his station's viewers.

There are even more inefficient television markets being blitzed with ads. In the Greenville, S.C., market, as little as 5 percent of the viewership lives in Georgia, meaning roughly $5.5 million of the $5.8 million spent so far there is reaching the wrong voters.

But the campaigns and outside groups keep spending anyway because the races between the two Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and their Democratic challengers, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, are so close and so consequential. If Democrats win both contests, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will have far more ability to enact his agenda, confirm administration appointees and fill vacant court seats. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would serve as the tiebreaking vote in the Senate for the Democrats.

"It's a leave-no-voter-behind mentality," said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for two Republican super PACs airing ads in — and around — Georgia. "These are very close elections and we anticipate that every vote will count."

Nearly $470 million in television, radio and digital ads have run or been reserved in the Georgia Senate runoffs so far, according to AdImpact. The Ossoff-Perdue contest has already surpassed the record for the most expensive Senate race ever - Mr. Ossoff forced a runoff by holding Mr. Perdue to 49.7 percent of the vote in November - and the Loeffler-Warnock race could well finish as the second most expensive.

The fact that Google and Facebook banned political ads on their platforms - two of the internet's biggest - into December further drove the campaigns and super PACs toward television and to inefficient purchases beyond state lines. Meanwhile, prices for ads in Atlanta, the largest market in the state, have soared to as high as $45,000 for a single 30-second spot during a football game.

Despite the prices, viewers in Atlanta are often treated to back-to-back-to-back-to-back political ads these days - so much so that stations have been fielding complaints. "We have been getting a lot of emails from you recently," one Atlanta anchor recently sympathized as she introduced a segment about how the station was legally obligated to run political ads from candidates for federal office.

While the Atlanta media market reaches nearly two-thirds of the state's population, about 9 percent of Georgians live in various spillover television markets based in surrounding states, and in races that could turn on just a few thousand votes that is far too many to ignore. There was some out-of-state advertising in the two Senate races before they headed to runoffs, but nothing like the barrage airing now.

So far, the biggest out-of-state market for spending has been Jacksonville, which has $13.1 million booked in Georgia Senate advertising.

"It's a phenomenon like we haven't seen," said Bob Ellis, the general manager at WJXT in Jacksonville.

He estimated that Georgians make up about 10 percent of his viewers. His station has seen millions of dollars in political spending anyway.

"In a year where we had a pandemic, it's certainly unexpected and welcomed," Mr. Ellis said.

Stations make the most money off super PACs. While candidates are protected from price-gouging under federal law, the outside groups are not — and some are paying quadruple the price for the same airtime. In Atlanta, for instance, candidates are paying $6,000 for a 30-second ad during "Jeopardy!" and $5,000 for a spot on "Wheel of Fortune" super PACs are being charged $25,000 and $20,000 for the same slots.

"It's good money," said Mr. Acuff at the Chattanooga station.

Among the out-of-state media markets, the most efficient for Georgia campaigns is the Tallahassee, Fla., market, where about 35 percent of viewers live in Georgia.

On the other end of the scale is the Dothan, Ala., market, where only 5 percent of viewers are in Georgia.

Television stations in Dothan might seem small enough to be overlooked by even the most ambitious Georgia politicians. The market reaches a single county in southwestern Georgia, Early, which does not crack the top 100 counties in Georgia by population.

Just over 10,000 people live there, or about 0.1 percent of the state population.

But the margins in Georgia were so excruciatingly small in November - Mr. Biden, the first Democrat to carry the state since 1992, won by fewer than 12,000 votes - that the campaigns are advertising in Dothan even though 95 percent of the market lives outside Georgia.

"This election is going to be extremely close," said Miryam Lipper, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ossoff, who said reaching all voters "is a top priority for us."

That effort has included spending about $362,000 in Dothan - or about $35 per each Georgia resident who might happen to see those ads.

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