Baltimore mayoral race offers case study in traditional vs. social media campaigning

David Zurawik takes a look at how TV ads and social media campaigning compare in Baltimore mayoral race.

It looks like State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh’s first big media push is paying off.

That’s one of the media takeaways from a new poll for the Baltimore Sun and University of Baltimore that shows Pugh tangled in a fight for first place with former Mayor Sheila Dixon in a field of 13 Democratic candidates.

The surging Pugh was 11 points behind Dixon in a Sun-UB poll in November and 9 points behind in a Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll in January. She is now favored by 26 percent of likely voters -- to 24 percent who favor Dixon.

On Feb. 15 when I last wrote about TV ad buys, Pugh had spent a total of only $3,000 to get on several cable channels carried by Comcast in Baltimore city, according to a campaign spokesman.

But since Feb. 25, her campaign has spent $41,830 in ad buys on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) alone, according to Federal Communications Commission documents. And executives at Baltimore’s network owned and affiliated stations are expecting an even bigger push from Pugh down the home stretch before the April 26 primary.

The mayor’s race in Baltimore offers an intriguing look at the role media play in local politics today. With the ascendancy of social media and the continued prognostications of doom for TV, it’s illuminating to see that conventional wisdom tested in one of the most important elections in Baltimore history.

On one hand, you have Dixon, who had owned the frontrunner mantle, running as non-media a campaign as can be imagined in 2016. She seems to be relying on yard signs instead of TV, let alone an organized social media effort.

On the other end of the media spectrum, you have activist DeRay Mckesson, who has 317,000 Twitter followers and a proven mastery of the medium in protests following the death of black men while in police custody -- like Freddie Gray.

Social media are supposed to be the name of the game in political campaigning. Think Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 – or Donald Trump in 2016. Trump’s tweets are not only dominating the social media conversation about the Republican primary, he’s driving the overall political coverage agenda on morning cable shows and legacy news organizations with them.

But according to this poll, Mckesson is getting almost no traction as a candidate for mayor.

I am nowhere near writing social media or Mckesson off in Baltimore in 2016. I say wait and see how many votes he is able to mobilize on Election Day.

But so far, the connection between TV ads and a rising stature among voters, which totally broke down nationally for candidates like Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries, appears to be holding here with Pugh’s performance and the rise on David Warnock to third place in the race after spending more than $650,000 in ads on local TV stations.

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