Fewer and fewer voters are watching live television and the political ads that run there, according to a new study conducted by a bipartisan group of pollsters and new media strategists.
In a white paper set for release Thursday, a team of political strategists argue that voters are effectively “going off the grid” as they head into the 2012 election cycle. And as Americans turn away from live televison, it will become increasingly difficult for campaigns to reach them through traditional advertising.
The study hinges on a national survey conducted last spring by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse and Democratic pollster Thomas Eldon, asking voters about their TV consumption habits.
Those two pollsters partnered with the firm SAY Media, the Democratic digital strategists at Chong & Koster and the Republican digital strategists at Targeted Victory to plan the study.
The poll asked 800 likely voters nationwide whether they had watched live television in the last week and found that 31 percent said they did not.
Only 57 percent of respondents nationwide said that live television was their primary method of watching video content, compared with 17 percent who said they mostly watched content recorded from Tivo or DVR and 9 percent who said they relied on DVDs.
Among voters who watch television through DVR, Tivo or other time-shifting methods, 88 percent say they skip over commercials three-quarters of the time or more. Fifty-nine percent say they skip ads all the time.
That suggests tried-and-true advertising tactics – such as a high-dollar TV blitz in the final weeks of a campaign – may be less effective for candidates in 2012, as voters are increasingly able to customize when and where they consume media.
“To succeed in the next election cycle and maximize reach among the dwindling supply of swayable voters, political campaigns must re-evaluate their outreach strategies to ensure they are making the most of their campaign spend,” the study concludes.
The white paper continues: “This challenge extends beyond the 2012 election — as younger voters continue to move away from live TV and a new generation of voters enters the booths, interruptive ad models like television will continue to decline in effectiveness while being increasingly inefficient from a cost perspective.”
The sponsors of the study aren’t entirely disinterested. The strategists at SAY Media, Chong & Koster and Targeted Victory all stand to benefit from a political world that increases its investment in non-traditional media.
But the polling by Eldon and Newhouse is compelling, and confirms that the shift away from traditional TV-watching is especially true for younger voters. Thirty-six percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 44 said they were watching less live TV than they did last year. Only 12 percent said they were watching more.
Twenty-nine percent of voters aged 18 to 44 said they plan on spending less time watching television from traditional sources, and more time viewing video through Hulu, Netflix and other web-based formats.
“If you’re trying to reach, through political advertising, younger voters, it’s a hit-or-miss proposition,” Newhouse said. “If your audience is 45-plus, the traditional way works pretty well. But if you’re looking at 18- to 44-year-olds, it is much more difficult than it was a few years ago.”
In addition to those national results, the poll also oversampled 300 likely voters in the battleground states of Florida and Ohio and found similar slices of the electorate were steering clear of live television.
In Florida, 28 percent of respondents said they hadn’t watched live TV in the last week. In Ohio, that proportion was 38 percent – a strikingly high figure in a state where control of the House, Senate and the presidency may be decided in 2012.
“Ohio is not where you would go looking for people on the forefront of early-adopter behavior,” said SAY Media’s Matt Rosenberg, arguing that “suggests this is really a national trend. This is about America, not about an individual state.”
The poll was conducted from May 22-25 and represents a first snapshot of TV-viewing habits at the beginning of the 2012 campaign. Because it’s a lone study, the authors acknowledge that it doesn’t on its own show changes in behavior over time.
But the fact that so many voters are already steering clear of live television – with more planning to do so in the future – is reason enough for campaigns to start adjusting their spending plans, the study authors say.
“It has budget implications for how you’re weighing your [advertising] spend,” said Targeted Victory’s Michael Beach, suggesting campaigns should focus on finding “people who are more likely to be receptive” to their messaging.
Democratic strategist Josh Koster, of Chong & Koster, said that means prioritizing web advertising more than in past election cycles.
“Since about 2008, we’ve seen campaigns starting to dabble with it,” he said. “The big piece is finding a place in the budget to carve out for reaching voters to persuade them on the most ubiquitous medium that exists right now.”
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