George W. Bush and Karl Rove showed the power of old-fashioned, shoe leather campaigning in 2004 with an army of volunteer door knockers and phone bankers. Barack Obama built on their lesson in 2008, building a massive, volunteer-driven campaign in every neighborhood in every swing state — and some not-so-swing states.
How quaint, how yesterday.
Look at the political landscape in America's biggest battleground state in 2010 and it's clear nothing beats the power of blitzing the airwaves with TV ads.
Two complete unknowns — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Greene and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott — are leading contenders thanks entirely to spending millions on carefully scripted, focus-grouped ads airing in every corner of Florida.
Scott, a controversial businessman who could pass for an awkward, first-time city council candidate, has spent more than $14 million on TV over nine weeks and leads Attorney General Bill McCollum by double digits in the latest poll. Greene, a Florida resident of two years better known for his bawdy Hollywood parties than any policy positions, has sunk more than $4.2 million on TV over four weeks and is tied with Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, who for months has touted his statewide field organization.
"For all the talk about the importance of field and social networking — and they are important — fundamentally you have to introduce yourself,'' said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran Obama's Florida campaign. "People have said (a strong grass roots program) can mean two or three points and make the difference on the margins. But in a lot of cases in a state like Florida, you can't get to the margins unless you are able to have a significant presence on television."
Kissing enough babies and addressing enough Rotarians can be the heart of a statewide campaign in New Hampshire or Montana. Florida, though, has more than 18.5 million people in 10 TV media markets. The Tampa Bay area alone is akin to the entire state of Colorado or Arizona when you consider the size of the electorate.
What's more, Florida's population is constantly changing, and unlike other states with deep community roots, countless residents view the state more as a residence than a home. It adds up to a political landscape where TV is king.
"I learned the lesson 30 years ago from Bob Squier,'' longtime Bob Graham adviser Buddy Shorstein said, referring to the late, legendary Democratic consultant who created Graham's TV commercials. "Bob said, 'I don't care what the newspapers say. Let me have some television time and I can win an election.' That's probably even more true today."
In Florida it costs at least $1.2 million for a week of relatively frequent TV ads statewide, which means any statewide candidate has to spend hour after hour, day after day, month after month raising enough money to be on TV.
For years, political professionals have speculated on how a self-funding multimillionaire could shake up the traditional campaign calculus, and this year brought two of them. Both are ripe for attack by opponents: Scott led the Columbia/HCA health care chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud, and Greene became a billionaire betting on the subprime mortgage implosion that helped tank Florida's economy.
"How much baggage can one person carry and still be a force in this state?'' Shorstein wondered. "It's almost humorous."
Both candidates brush off the suggestion they're out to buy the election, saying they're outsiders determined to change politics as usual.
"They're saying I'm buying the race,'' Greene said Wednesday, talking to about two dozen people at the Jordan Park gym in St. Petersburg. "I'm going to donate my entire salary to charities in Florida. I'm not taking more than $100 from anyone. I'm panicked about where this country is and I want to go to Washington and I want to make a difference. I don't want to have to answer to any special interests. I want all 18.5 million people to be able to call me up and have equal say."
California, where it costs about $1.2 million a week just to advertise in the Los Angeles area, led the way for gazillionaire candidates. This year, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has already spent more than $70 million of her own money running for governor.
California has seen at least as many self-financers lose their lavishly funded races as win them, however. And Florida has its own high-profile example of grass roots trumping big money: Marco Rubio.
Against all odds, the underdog Republican U.S. Senate candidate rode a growing wave of conservative discontent to push lavishly funded Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP primary.
Former Florida GOP executive director David Johnson of Tallahassee doubts even a mother lode of TV will be enough for Scott ultimately to overcome McCollum's support among activists.
"That's not going to drive people to the polls in a low-turnout August primary situation. The Scott campaign has to buy what McCollum's already got — and that's a committed base,'' Johnson said. "Any candidate with that kind of money running negative ads against you has to be reckoned with, but I feel very confident that McCollum is going to win."
Maybe you can't buy an election. But millions of dollars on TV certainly gets you right in the middle of the game.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.