On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, Americans will go to the polls to elect 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 34 U.S. Senators, 11 state Governors, and one President. It’s been widely reported that next year’s election cycle will be the costliest in history, with spending by candidates, parties, outside groups, and individuals expected to be as high as $10 billion.
Some of the arithmetic attached to this tsunami of cash is simply nuts—not because the numbers don’t add up, but because the scale of political investment they represent is so unlike anything we’ve seen before. MSNBC has reported, for example, that the nearly $900 million pledged for campaign purposes by the Koch brothers could be spent at a daily rate of $1.36 million—almost $60,000 per hour—between now and Election Day. According to the Washington Examiner, the $2.5 billion that supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton hope to raise works out to $37.92 per vote to send her to the White House, more than ever spent in a national campaign.
The data we’re seeing about election-related media spending don’t shock in quite the same way, but they’re pause-giving nonetheless. A forecast from the media research firm Borrell Associates estimates that $12 billion will be spent on advertising by candidates for all local, state and federal offices in 2016. That’s $51 per eligible voter, or 21% more than in the last presidential election year.
Of the total, about half will be spent on broadcast television. After all this time, the tube still is the medium with the most pervasive reach and influence when it comes to getting out the vote. But, easily the fastest growing channel for political advertising is online, where Borrell forecasts that spending could reach almost $1 billion—four times its projected spend for 2014.
Where does this leave traditional, print-based media? At a far cry from the days when, as a campaigner for Congress, Lyndon Johnson would tell aides he wanted his district so print-saturated that you couldn’t perform a certain act of personal hygiene “on a piece of paper that hasn’t got my picture on it.” Borrell forecasts that online political ad spending will outpace newspaper placements in 2016, with out-of-home, direct mail, and other print channels playing relatively minor supporting roles.
Political printing has always been a tricky niche to serve, even in its heyday. The workload is seasonal and temporary. Trying to collect payment from the losing side can be frustrating. In recent years, the biggest obstacle has been displacement by digital alternatives that are more immediate, targetable, and trackable than print in their effect upon voters.
In a bittersweet way, print still keeps its place in the places where votes are cast. Once, mechanical voting booths used long, striplike cards to display the names of candidates and the details of legislative measures. Printing the cards was a specialty of letterpress shops that have gone the way of the old switch-and-lever machines. Now we vote digitally by scanning our choices straight into electoral databases—but at least the process starts with marks on preprinted ballots.
Print probably never will stop being useful for politics. Drive along any suburban or rural road in the run-up to local elections, and there you will be greeted by strategically placed red, white, and blue signs bearing the names of the hopefuls. Google “political printing,” and you may be surprised to see how many shops continue to offer it as a specialty.
One of this writer’s odder possessions is a bumper sticker from the campaign of the Patrick Henry who ran successfully for District Attorney of Suffolk County, NY, nearly 40 years ago. If it now seems quainter than its years, it isn’t because bumper stickers and printed items like them no longer matter to politicking. It’s just that now, they look almost innocent in comparison to the megabucks-motivated broadcast and digital exhortations that will be harking all of us to the fateful decisions we must make at our polling stations on 11-8-16.