By the ad numbers: Mourdock’s Indiana Senate primary win

Assistance from outside groups was key to victory

Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock’s primary victory over six-term incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar last night was years in the making. Mourdock’s long-term courtship of the party faithful helped him consolidate the movement conservative vote behind him. With no threat of another challenger dividing the anti-Lugar vote, Mourdock was able to demonstrate enough credibility to draw in outside help.

Meanwhile, Lugar was able to utilize the superior resources available to a veteran of almost four decades on Capitol Hill. The senator spent $2.2 million on his primary campaign. Mourdock didn’t have the same resources at his disposal. For his campaign, he spent $725,000 -- meaning he was outspent 3-1 by Lugar.

Mourdock started out small with cable buys in mid-February. He didn’t go up on broadcast until early March; six weeks after Lugar went up. Even then Mourdock was only on Indianapolis broadcast three weeks before the election. He mostly stuck with advertising on newscasts while Lugar expanded to all programming slots about one month before the election. In March, Lugar was up on broadcast in six Indiana TV markets while Mourdock was up in one.

With Mourdock’s back against the wall, ad spending by the Club for Growth became decisive. They placed $1.3 million on broadcast and cable. Combined with Mourdock’s media buys, it would almost equal Lugar’s total spending. They were also more willing to go on broadcast outside the newscast slots. And they were the first pro-Mourdock group to expand beyond Indianapolis newscast advertising.

Other outside groups also came in -- but to help Lugar. One pro-Lugar SuperPAC, the Indiana Values PAC, was run by the senator’s former aides. It placed $390,000 during the last month of the primary. Another Super PAC, Hoosiers for Economic Growth and Jobs, placed $100,000 for one week in late March. The most prominent intervention on the pro-Lugar side came from the American Action Network (AAN). 

It came into the race in the last few weeks with the goal of tilting the race toward Lugar. Its original outlay was close to $650,000, all of it on broadcast.  But on the afternoon of April 27, AAN cancelled all its spending beyond May 1. This was a signal that insiders considered the race to be Mourdock’s to lose. Ultimately, AAN cancelled about $100,000 in spending, and laid out a total of $545,000.

Toward the end, the pro-Mourdock side was outspending the pro-Lugar side. In the last nine days of the election, the pro-Mourdock side spent about $100,000 on ads. The spending decisions of outside groups were crucial. If AAN kept its original schedule, the spending in this period would have been about equal. Once Lugar looked vulnerable, others wanted to join in and defeat him.  

The NRA spent $86,000 on cable and broadcast. This is significant because it’s rare for the NRA to target an incumbent Republican. Outsider conservative groups also hitched their wagon to Mourdock. Citizens United, a conservative group, decided to place $88,000 worth of cable in the last two weeks. 

On Election Day, Lugar narrowly won in the immediate Indianapolis area. This was the one market where Lugar had clear air superiority. Pro-Lugar advertisers were at 1800-2000 points per week for the last few weeks of the campaign, compared to only one week where the pro-Mourdock side was above 1000 points. But Lugar lost just about everywhere else in the state by about a 2-1 margin. 

The northeast corner of the state, a heavily Republican area, went about 70 percent for Mourdock. The pro-Lugar side was actually getting its message out more here, but that didn’t make a difference in the end. The Mourdock side also emphasized performance in the South Bend market, where they were airing more broadcast spots than the pro-Lugar side every week for the last month. The effort paid off as Mourdock ran very well in an area that’s not a Republican stronghold.

Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.

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