Why Baltimore mayor's race is becoming a tale of money, TV

As Baltimore heads toward the homestretch of one of the most important mayoral elections in its history, it's clear that local media are going to play a more important role than ever.

Despite all the talk about new media's potential to reduce the influence of money on politics, it looks as if that influence has remained intact in this Democratic primary race.


Here then are five observations on media and money in this landmark race to consider in coming days.

1. Spending on TV advertising is paying off for local candidates — despite the example of Jeb Bush's spectacular failure to buy any traction in Republican presidential primaries after spending tens of millions of dollars on ads. Will it ultimately spell the difference here?


A poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore that was published Thursday captured the surge by state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh into first place — 2 percentage points ahead of former Mayor Sheila Dixon — with likely voters in the Democratic primary.

While direct causality cannot be established, the link between Pugh's media push on local television starting the last week of February and her rise in the poll is impossible to ignore.

As of Feb. 15, Pugh had spent just $3,000 on TV in Baltimore, according to a campaign spokesman. The most recent polling at the time had her 9 points behind Dixon.

But since Feb. 25, Pugh's campaign has spent $41,830 in ad buys on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) alone, according to Federal Communications Commission documents. And now she is 2 points ahead (though that is within the poll's margin of error).


Of the voters who made up their minds about a candidate during that period, 45 percent decided to back Pugh. Before her ad buy, she was getting less than half that at 21 percent.

"Candidates who have invested in television have moved in this race," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that ran the poll.

He pointed to David Warnock's $650,000 buy — "that put him in third place" — and Elizabeth Embry's smaller campaign — "she's actually moved into a really strong second-tier position" at fifth place, he said.

"Outside of Sheila Dixon, who has hard support, the support for everybody else is soft," Raabe said. "And there is one-quarter [of the electorate] undecided. So if somebody went out and raised a bunch of money and then spent it on media, they could move numbers pretty substantially."

2. Look for even more political ads to start appearing on Baltimore TV.

Monday is the day that a window opens for political candidates to have access to lower ad rates, thanks to a Federal Communications Commission mandate. The period known as LUR (lowest unit rates) runs in Baltimore from Monday through April 26, the day of the primaries.

"Spending is going to ramp up sharply in that period," said Dan Joerres, president and general manager at WBAL-TV.

He and other Baltimore station executives say the overall money spent on TV ads in 2016 has been at or slightly below expectations, even with the heavy buy from Warnock.

But that will change because of the lower rates and narrow races. Joerres cited The Sun/UB mayoral poll, as well as a recent Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll that showed Reps. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, the two leading candidates for Barbara A. Mikulski's Senate seat, were within the margin of error.

Such results "tend to mean more spending," Joerres said. "The tighter it gets, the more that's spent. You can't win a local election without being on local broadcast television."

Forty-two percent of the respondents in the Gonzales poll support Van Hollen, 41 percent back Edwards and 15 percent were undecided.

Van Hollen's campaign bought over $123,000 in advertising time on WBAL alone, according to orders publicly filed Thursday and Friday.

City Councilman Carl Stokes went on TV with his first ad this week, while Pugh extended her successful TV effort with the debut of a third ad.

While Pugh's ad features quietly forceful testimony from a victim of domestic violence describing how Pugh helped her, Stokes goes for a brash look, with the candidate brandishing a handgun and handcuffs to talk about crime.

3. Despite his low standing in The Sun/UB poll, keep an eye on social media activist DeRay Mckesson to get a fix on where Baltimore is in this time of epic media change.

Mckesson, who has 317,000 Twitter followers, polled less than 1 percent in The Sun/UB survey. As excited as I've been by Mckesson's presence, even I have to say that's not good.

But there are factors to consider before counting him out.

No. 1 is that pollsters have struggled to get accurate information on young adults. The most recent case was Tuesday in Michigan, where the polls had Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton 20 points ahead of rival Bernie Sanders on the eve of the primary — only to have Sanders win.

Part of the failure involves pollsters still doing interviews on land lines when younger voters are almost exclusively on cellphones.

Raabe acknowledged the difficulty, saying, "It is challenging, because young people are not using land lines, and that's the traditional way we've polled, calling peoples' land lines. Now for the last few years, we've put cellphones into the mix, and the more cellphones we can put into the mix, the better job we can do reaching young people."

The other question with Mckesson is whether his media acumen extends beyond social media.

Media do not move from one era to another in an instant. There is always a period — often a decade or more — in which two or more media share the stage. Think radio and TV in the 1950s.

We are at such a stage now, with TV still the dominant force in American politics, but the movement to digital and social media is deeply underway, as we saw with Barack Obama's presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

I have praised Donald Trump for finding the sweet spot in this time of transition with a mix of free TV and Twitter. He uses Twitter to drive morning TV's agenda. And then his interviews on morning TV drive political coverage on legacy websites throughout the day. It's masterful.

Can Mckesson be as media-savvy at the local level? Can he use his social media skills to mobilize young voters and raise money — and then perhaps put some of that money into legacy platforms to reach older voters with his message?

4. Old-school as it might be, signage is media, too. This is another Pugh-Dixon battleground.

Dixon's greatest media commitment so far has been to signage. I have been driving different routes to The Sun from my home in Northeast Baltimore to try to get a feeling for her signage.

Dixon owns certain stretches, such as Harford Road facing Clifton Park. But along Greenmount Avenue in Waverly, Pugh also has a strong storefront presence.


Much like Mckesson, the media question for Dixon is whether she can mix and match. Whereas buying TV time is moving in the "old" media direction for him, in Dixon's case, it would mean moving in a newer direction. Does she have the money to match Pugh's TV buys? And what if she goes on TV and her opponents go negative on her? Will she have the money to fight back?


5. Will any media effort in Baltimore ultimately matter as much as on-the-ground organizing and voter turnout?

I asked that question of Kurt L. Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor who is now president of the University of Baltimore.

"In past primary elections, organization and turnout were far more important than TV ads alone," he wrote in an email.

But "given the unusually large number of candidates," he added, "TV advertising may have a larger impact than in previous races."

Schmoke also noted that presidential and Senate candidates will be vying for some of that less expensive airtime on Baltimore TV between now and April 26.

"The traditional rules of mayoral primaries may be challenged by these two factors, the large number of candidates, and an election in a presidential election year," he wrote. "Both of those factors are new to our local politics."