In six days, voters will come face to face with a ballot that includes 28 names of people running as Democrats for City Council. All are hoping their name rings a bell, maybe from personal interaction, word of mouth, a mailer, or a TV ad.
None of the three mayoral candidates’ campaigns has aired commercials, although two PACs have paid for ads to promote Mayor Jim Kenney and the beverage industry has run spots against him.
But it’s a different story in the City Council at-large race, where all three incumbents — Allan Domb, Helen Gym, and Derek Green — and two of the challengers, Eryn Santamoor and Justin DiBerardinis, have gone on TV. That’s the most in recent memory. Councilman Al Taubenberger is the lone Republican in a field of seven to buy TV time. (An independent expenditure committee, Philly for Growth, is also airing ads for several at-large candidates, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has paid for commercials in his bid to retain his District 2 seat.)
Taubenberger and Green had, as of this week, made more modest buys, $8,500 and $30,000, respectively. Domb had spent more than $1 million, and everyone else had spent in the $180,000 to $250,000 range. These numbers aren’t final, as the days before the election tend to be media-buying blitzes.
“My guess is some of these candidates are surprised there are as many as there are up on TV,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive and longtime observer of Philly politics. “Of course, it all depends how much you spend.”
But in a low-turnout election, as Tuesday is expected to be, the voters tend to be older, longer-term residents, who probably have cable. And so, some TV is better than no TV, said Neil Oxman, a campaign consultant.
“$200,000 is better than zero,” Oxman said. Especially when the airwaves aren’t crowded with lots of political ads. “It’s not like a general election, where president, Senate, five congressionals are hitting you back to back to back when you see a news break on Jeopardy!”
Oxman’s group is working with Justin DiBerardinis’ campaign. DiBerardinis has spent close to $50,000 on mostly cable — and some broadcast — spots since mid-April.
Still, several candidates have put together commercials to share on social media — and paid for their placement on Facebook.
Incumbent Domb has spent at least $1 million on TV ads. He was one of the few Council candidates in Philadelphia history to go on TV in a race for an at-large seat when he first ran in 2015.
Domb, who has six different television ads, has been on broadcast, cable, and radio since the end of February, and has spent almost as much as all the other at-large Democrats have spent on TV, combined.
“The rule of thumb in media is always to win one form of media instead of just being a little here, a little there,” Ceisler said. “You try to win on TV, digital, mail, on radio. … Obviously, it doesn’t hurt, but if you don’t do that much, it doesn’t really have much of an impact.”
One way TV helps, Ceisler said, is adding legitimacy. “From an endorsement standpoint, if they know you’re up on television, it makes them feel good — it’s a validator that this campaign is real and an opportunity to send out more fund-raising pleas. ‘Hey, we’re on TV, but we want to buy more.’”
Victory will come down to many factors in the at-large race, including party and individual ward endorsements, which put a candidate’s name on sample ballots distributed near the polls. A robust election day operation can turn out voters and secure votes. Endorsements from labor and other groups can create a lift. And in a low-information primary election, ballot position can matter.
City commissioner is traditionally a pretty sleepy race, but this year, 13 Democrats are running for two majority seats, and two of them appear to have broken ground in becoming the first commissioner candidates to run ads on TV.
Kahlil Williams, a well-funded first-time candidate, has spent about $170,000 on an ad that began running on cable last week and broadcast this week. Following Williams’ move to the airwaves, incumbent Lisa Deeley put out her own ad this week. Her campaign declined to specify the amount spent or where it would run. FCC data show her campaign has spent about $38,000 so far.