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With Summer Ads, Some Campaigns Are Testing Conventional Wisdom

In Texas, the traditional model for general election campaign advertising — don't run ads before Labor Day — is being challenged by some campaigns.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott isn't on TV right now, but he is spending campaign funds to screen his latest 30-second spot at theaters before screenings of some summer blockbusters.

Texans heading to the movies to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might be surprised to see Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, pop up on the screen. Seated in his own crowded theater, a smiling Abbott speaks directly to a camera to his left, while those around him stare straight ahead as if watching a film and oblivious to Abbott’s pitch.

“Making a 30-second ad involves a lot,” Abbott says in the campaign commercial, which has run at two dozen theaters. “I can’t imagine what it takes to make a movie. But I do know how much effort it takes to run for governor in Texas, and that’s why I need your help.”

The timing of the campaign ad was as unusual as the location. While most general election candidates are saving their money to run ads on television starting in September, that longstanding model is being challenged in Texas.

“Usually everyone hoards their money and spends it after Labor Day,” said Jason Stanford, a senior adviser to Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for comptroller who has run TV ads in some markets this summer. “We’re finding that, contrary to conventional wisdom, that people are paying attention.”

Abbott is facing Wendy Davis, a Democrat, to succeed Gov. Rick Perry, who chose not to run for another term. Both campaigns are expected to spend millions on local television advertising this fall. Election Day is Nov. 4, but early voting starts on Oct. 20.

Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, pointed to Abbott’s prompt at the end of the ad for viewers to send a text message to sign up for campaign alerts as a clue to its intention. It suggests the ad was more about building the campaign’s base of volunteers and donors than swaying voter opinion, he said.

“There’s good evidence to believe that once people have taken a step, even as little as texting you, they’re more likely to respond to your next request,” Issenberg said.

Avdiel Huerta, a spokesman for Abbott, declined to say how many people have followed Abbott’s prompt in the ad, but he said the results were promising.

“It was a worthwhile investment,” Huerta said. “I can say that we’ve decided to extend the ad in theaters across the state.”

While still unusual, political advertising in theaters is becoming more common nationwide as campaigns look to reach a larger segment of viewers who avoid most TV commercials by using digital video recorders and streaming shows online, said Michele Clarke, a spokeswoman for Screenvision, a cinema advertising company.

“Moviegoers are a captive audience; the ads are ‘unskippable;’ and there’s no competition in the room for attention to the ad,” Clarke said in an email.

Craig Murphy, a Republican consultant who has done work for Abbott’s campaign, said the candidate's sizable war chest gives him the ability to reach out to voters earlier and in different arenas. This month, Abbott reported $35.6 million in his campaign account, more than twice as much as Davis had.

“If you have money to get up this early, then you start,” Murphy said. “The rule isn’t ‘You don’t start early.’ The rule is ‘You don’t go dark and stop advertising at some point.’”

In his bid for comptroller, Collier is challenging that rule with a sporadic advertising schedule. From March to June, his campaign has run two commercials attacking his Republican opponent, state Sen. Glenn Hegar, on broadcast stations in Houston, San Antonio and Austin. The campaign plans to roll out a more sustained ad campaign closer to the election.

As a first-time candidate, Collier said getting his message on the air early seemed logical.

“If I’ve got six months to get my message out to the people who care about who is comptroller, why wait till the end?” Collier said.

In 2006, Perry’s re-election campaign worked with researchers to study which campaign strategies were the most effective. Issenberg, who wrote about the research in his book, said the Perry campaign concluded that advertising too far ahead of the start of voting did not significantly change voter behavior. Yet a campaign that chooses to advertise months ahead of Election Day might be more interested in signaling a candidate’s viability to potential donors and activists.

“That might have a practical value at that moment even if it’s not going to have a practical impact on Election Day voting,” Issenberg said. “It can still have an impact on the contours of the race.”

A summer ad campaign can also help a campaign refine its message for the fall, Murphy said.

“You can poll a message, you can even focus-group a message, but nothing compares to actually putting it up and seeing what happens,” Murphy said. “If you can afford it, you can have a rich tapestry of messages instead of something two-dimensional.”

In one of the state’s most contentious congressional races, neither U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, nor his Republican opponent, Will Hurd, has run TV ads since the primaries. Yet Concerned Veterans for America, a group targeting Democratic incumbents in several states, ran commercials in Gallego’s district in June and July criticizing his record on veteran issues.

Daniel Caldwell, the issues and legislative campaign manager for Concerned Veterans for America, said the ads were timed to highlight proposals being considered in Congress to reform the Veterans Affairs department.

“We’re not advocating for Pete Gallego’s defeat or re-election,” Caldwell said. “We wanted to make sure we were on the air educating people about Pete Gallego and what we felt has been his poor performance on the issue.”

The Gallego campaign criticized the ads as false and misleading. Anthony Gutierrez, a spokesman for Gallego, also took issue with the group’s claims that the ads were not guided by the election calendar, arguing that they were run as part of an effort to draw more attention to the race and persuade other political organizations to invest in Hurd’s campaign.

“I think the point of early investment from third-party groups is they’re trying to make this look like a more competitive race,” Gutierrez said. “It was clearly about the election.”

Caldwell said he stood by the ads and denied Gutierrez’s allegations. He did not rule out running more ads in the district in the fall.

“We haven’t decided at this time what else we’re going to do in Texas-23, if anything at all,” Caldwell said.

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Politics 2014 elections Campaign finance Glenn Hegar Greg Abbott Wendy Davis