Campaign ads are bombarding smaller media markets, where TV time is more cost-effective

Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By David Jackson / The Dallas Morning News

SCRANTON, Pa. – Evelyn Frishko finally got to meet Al Gore recently, though she feels she's known the vice president for months.

Mr. Gore and George W. Bush drop in on her every night, through her television set.

"We're getting tired of all the commercials – it's the same thing over and over," Mrs. Frishko said while lunching at the downtown mall near the Steamtown railroad museum. "It seems like every channel, every night."

Mrs. Frishko and her neighbors in coal country can be forgiven for political fatigue. At times this election year, the Scranton area television market has been inundated with the country's highest levels of presidential advertising.

"No wonder I'm sick of it," said Joan Judge, a volunteer at the local museum dedicated to the product that once fueled the area's economy, anthracite coal. "By the time you get to the election, you're so confused and so sick of it."

Other residents indicated that the ads have been successful in reaching voters. Marla Coury, who helps operate tours of an abandoned coal mine, said the commercials have gotten her thinking more about the frequently advertised topics of Social Security, Medicare and the cost of prescription drugs.

"We may be 42 today, but some day we'll be 65, and we may need that medicine," she said.

Keystone State is key

The intensity of advertising has less to do with Scranton than with Pennsylvania, whose 23 electoral votes are the fifth highest in the nation. Many political analysts regard the Keystone State as essential to victory for Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush.

The Scranton area may be the key to Pennsylvania, according to residents and political analysts. Voters frequently switch sides in this politically active area, which this year also features competitive House and Senate races. Scranton-area ad costs are also less than those of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, giving politicians more reach for the rate.

"It is kind of the epicenter of all this presidential advertising," said Kenneth Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who is studying how campaigns spend advertising money.

The big cities aren't the only places where money gets spent. Smaller markets in big, contested states are also targets of opportunity, which is why the lists of major buys also features such places as Flint and Grand Rapids, Mich.; Columbus and Toledo, Ohio; and Green Bay, Wis.

"They're a little bit smaller, so they're a little bit cheaper," Mr. Goldstein said. "The difference between Number 1 and Number 10 is not that much."

Mrs. Frishko, who runs the production line at a plant that makes protective gear, said local Democrats made the area's importance clear when Mr. Gore paid a visit in early September.

"We've never had any candidate ever come to our plant before," Mrs. Frishko said while lunching with her daughter at the food court. "They said he really needed Pennsylvania. I believe it; you keep seeing him."

Him and Mr. Bush. Constantly. Too much, say some residents who believe the deluge of ads – and their frequently negative tone – turn off some voters and dissuade them from voting.

"Most people know who they're going to vote for," Bonnie Lee Gray said over breakfast at Shooky's Deli downtown. "Why would they promote the anger in people?"

Angela Sedorovitz, another volunteer at the anthracite museum, said she takes the politicians' televised pitches in stride.

"They have to do that; it's part of their job," Ms. Sedorovitz said. "They all want to win."

Up for grabs

Rene LaSpina, the general manager of the local ABC-TV affiliate, said she has heard no complaints about all the political ads on her station. She said she isn't surprised the candidates would want to spend their money in such a politically engaged area.

"There are so many voters here up for grabs that this area could decide the whole state of Pennsylvania," Ms. LaSpina said. "I think political races are won on television. ... The Gore-Bush campaign is going to be won in television in Pennsylvania."

Neither party is safe

A largely Republican area in the early 20th century, Scranton turned Democratic during the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt. These days, residents are liable to swing either way.

There is no better example than Scranton Mayor Jimmy Connors. Thrice elected as a Republican, Mr. Connors switched to the Democrats the same day Mr. Gore visited.

"Politics here in northeast Pennsylvania is everybody's hobby," Mr. Connors said. "We like it. We love it. It's always been very important here."

It's also been colorful. Longtime congressman Joe McDade earned a reputation for bringing home the bacon, including $66 million in federal aid for the Steamtown train museum. It's no accident that the anthracite museum and the coal mine tour are located in McDade Park.

Mr. McDade is also remembered for his indictment on charges of accepting contributions and speaking fees from a company in exchange for a defense contract. A jury acquitted him.

More Pennsylvania voters are registered Democrats, but many are conservative Catholics who don't care much for the national party's support of gun control and abortion rights. Then-Gov. Robert Casey's anti-abortion views cost him a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic convention. The current governor, Tom Ridge, is a Republican, as are U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum.

But Bill Clinton carried the state twice, though the results in the Scranton area congressional district have been mixed. The elder George Bush won it in 1992, while Mr. Clinton beat Bob Dole four years later by only 2 percentage points. Local Republicans are confident that George W. Bush, who also has visited Scranton, has a good a chance to duplicate his father's success here.

Other races

Residents in Scranton and neighboring Wilkes-Barre also are exposed to commercials for a competitive Senate race between Mr. Santorum and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, as well as one of the country's most closely watched House races. Incumbent Republican Don Sherwood, who replaced Mr. McDade after the 1998 election, faces a rematch with lawyer Pat Casey, son of the former governor. Two years ago, Mr. Sherwood defeated Mr. Casey by only 515 votes.

The House and Senate races have generated the more-negative ads, residents said. One pro-Sherwood commercial asks, "Pat Casey and dirty tricks – will they ever stop?" A Casey ad accuses the incumbent of voting "to give millionaires like himself an $800 billion tax break instead of using the money to strengthen Medicare."

The cost of prescription drugs, Medicare, and Social Security have been the dominant themes of the ads at the House, Senate, and presidential levels, residents said.

Ms. Wolf also got to meet Mr. Gore during his visit in early September. He dropped in on Shooky's to shake hands and share some coffee with the waitresses over one of the checkerboard tablecloths.

Ms. Wolf said she immediately noticed a difference between the televised Gore and the live one.

"Oh, God, yes – he looks different – he was much more attractive!" she said. "Television doesn't do that man justice."

Not that she pays much attention anymore. Ms. Wolf and Mrs. Frishko, back over at the Steamtown Mall, said the televised political wars began too early, way back in the summer. They wished for shorter election seasons, such as the ones in Great Britain – yet the number of ads here are likely to increase as Election Day nears.

"They just make it so boring, you want the election over with," Mrs. Frishko said as her daughter and granddaughter played together nearby. "I just can't wait until the election is over."

The daughter, Lisa Frishko, offered a suggestion for how to handle the commercials in the meantime.

"I don't really pay attention much," she said. "I usually flip through them."