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Analysis: Clinton ads won’t turn Texas, but could turn heads

The Clinton campaign is buying television ads in Texas, but not enough of them to capture the attention of most TV viewers — or most voters. So what's the deal?

Hillary Clinton cheers as she acknowledges the crowd in Carroll, Iowa with daughter Chelsea on Jan. 30, 2016.

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Why in the wide world of sports would Hillary Clinton’s campaign buy television advertising time in Texas?

Break this down: Texas is a giant state. It’s an expensive place to advertise, partly because it has some of the biggest cities, partly because it has so many television markets. It’s cheaper to win a statewide election in a small state than in a big one. Texas is also red, red, red when it comes to politics.

So why is the Clinton campaign buying?

It’s a classic political prank: If you only have enough money to buy one billboard ad, spend it on the billboard that’s closest to your opponent’s home airport. It won’t move that many voters, but it will rattle the opponent, who’ll be seeing your name and face with every departure and arrival.

Buying a bit of TV time in a state your opponent is supposed to have in the bag is essentially the same gag.

Texas is Republican country when it comes to presidential politics. Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to win the state. What’s more, the Republicans — with only a couple of exceptions — have defeated the Democrats by double-digit margins every time.

The recent history is awful for Democrats. Barack Obama lost Texas by 12 percentage points (the numbers are rounded) the first time he ran and by 16 percentage points in 2012. George W. Bush beat his two opponents by 21 percentage points here in 2000 and by 23 percentage points four years later. Bill Clinton was the exception, but he had some electoral help from independent candidate Ross Perot of Dallas; Clinton lost Texas by four percentage points in his first run and by five in his second. George H.W. Bush won in 1988 by 13 percentage points. And Ronald Reagan started the current streak with a 14-point win in 1980 and a 28-point win four years later.

You see the situation. At this point, a single-digit defeat in Texas would be a significant improvement in Democratic fortunes here.

Put yourself in Hillary Clinton’s shoes. You want to win the blue states, and things are looking pretty good, according to most polls. There are some red states where your chances are next to zero — states that the Trump campaign regards as safe. Texas is one of those.

And then there are states in the middle. Some ordinarily Republican states and some swing states are still unstable, worthy of attention from both campaigns in these final three weeks: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, to name a few.

So why is the Clinton campaign buying commercials in Texas? It’s a classic political prank.

So there you sit, ready to spend that campaign dough. With uncertain outcomes in one in five American states, you would have to have a particular reason to send any of that money here:

(a) The tide in Texas is really turning.

(b) You’ve done all that you can in all of the other states where you really are competitive and might as well blow a few bucks on the Texas long shot.

(c) You want to irritate your opponent or make him uncertain of his support.

(d) You want a few days of relatively favorable stories about a lead that’s grown to the point where Texas is even a subject of conversation.

(e) You have some money left over, and your cousin owns a TV station in East Texas (kidding).

At this point, the Clinton campaign has probably spent more on barbecue and shrimp at its Texas fundraisers than it is going to spend advertising to Texas voters. And it is arguably spending the TV money for the same reason it bought those snacks: to keep Texas financial and political supporters enthused, involved — and not feeling left out or forgotten.

A serious political advertising campaign in Texas — the kind designed to snag every voter in a contested race for governor, for instance — costs more than $1 million per week. A statewide campaign doing less than that either has something else in mind or doesn’t have enough money to make its case. Clinton’s campaign, according to reliable sources, had booked less than $100,000 by midday Tuesday.

They’re not trying to swing the state’s electorate. The campaign just wants Texans — and Trump — to think about the possibilities. Real advertising would have cost millions; getting us to talk about it only takes one billboard or a smattering of TV commercials.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Texas Democrats have pined for years for a candidate who could turn their luck around. Now they're hoping a Republican will answer their prayers.
  • Regulators are deciding how much lobby wining and dining Texas lawmakers can accept without revealing their names. Hint: It's a lot.
  • Republican politicians in Texas ought to be celebrating right now, and for a variety of reasons. But the national election has them looking at the political weather forecasts, where they’re bracing for Hurricane Donald and a chance of purple rain.

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