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Rich Miller: How long will we get a break from campaign ads?

By Rich Miller
Political columnist
Posted on 5/2/2018, 1:00 AM

Believe it or not, one of the questions I'm asked the most these days is, "When will Gov. Rauner and J.B. Pritzker start airing general election TV ads?"

A few weeks ago, pundit Dick Simpson predicted to Crain's Chicago Business that the new campaign TV ads would start "any minute," adding both candidates will be worried about the other candidate getting out front.

Four years ago, I mistakenly believed candidate Bruce Rauner would take a page from Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 2014 reelection playbook and quickly bury Gov. Pat Quinn under a mountain of negative advertising. Instead, Rauner waited until July 11 to air his first general election TV ad.

So, what's it gonna be this year?

From what I can gather, I don't think Pritzker wants to get the blame for being the first to go back on TV. Pritzker spent tens of millions on TV ads since May 2 of last year and voters aren't eager for more. By waiting for Rauner to pull the trigger, Pritzker can say he had no choice but to go back on the air to counter Rauner.

Besides, private polling reportedly shows Pritzker with a substantial double-digit lead over Rauner in what still looks like a favorable year for Democrats, so there's no immediate need for Pritzker to run ads.

After checking around, I don't think the governor's campaign is all that eager to resume spending big bucks on TV right away, either.

What I didn't consider in 2014 was that at least part of the reason Rauner went dark was to help him fade away from voters' consciousness after the primary, and allow him to introduce a new messaging campaign for the general.

Most ads quickly lose their impact not long after they're pulled off air. If you go up with a message, you gotta stay up with that message or most of your spending was for naught.

So, if you want to introduce a revamped, general election message, you sometimes need to give that earlier message time to expire. It's kind of like a reboot.

After Rauner's bitter, unexpectedly close primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives, it's probably best to get out of the public's face for a while and allow people time to forget and maybe forgive. One of the best things about an early primary, after all, is it gives the winners plenty of time to try to heal the wounds before November.

Plus, what's the rush? Running ads in April 2006 allowed Gov. Blagojevich to push Judy Baar Topinka's poll numbers down, which helped dry up her fundraising. The first post-primary poll had Topinka leading the incumbent, but that changed after the Blagojevich ad attack. Topinka couldn't quickly fight back because she drained her account to win the GOP primary.

The only way to dry up Pritzker's money is to completely crash the world economy and send us all back to the Stone Age. TV ads can do a lot, but they can't do that. Rauner knows that if he airs ads, Pritzker can easily afford to immediately respond.

And while Rauner has shown a willingness to spend his personal fortune to win elections, people who've been close to him over the years say he becomes reluctant when it comes time to write the checks.

Besides, TV-watchers truly do need a break from the primary's bottomless pit of negative TV ads.

But not everyone is getting a rest. Both campaigns are currently advertising online, through social media, Google searches, etc.

The effectiveness of online advertising is growing by the day because it can be so finely targeted and because people are spending so much time on their computers and smartphones.

TV is still the best way to reach voters, but it's slowly losing its punch as viewership declines and splinters into a million different directions. And they can advertise online without much news media notice.

By the way, this comes with the usual caveat that politics can always change in a hurry. I'm hearing the governor may be getting pressured by someone close to him to start spending money soon, so we'll see.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and