Television advertising is pricey—so pricey that most of this year’s candidates for the North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are purchasing it in bite-sized, 15-second chunks for which the candidates have already committed in excess of $1,000,000.
That figure comes from Justice at Stake, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that monitors state courts. The organization came to that figure by reviewing publicly available FCC records for 15 television stations in North Carolina. Several campaign officials who spoke with Lawyers Weekly confirmed the reported ad buys, but said that not necessarily all the stations’ FCC records would be fully up to date, so in some cases campaigns may have committed more money for advertisements than reported by Justice at Stake.
In order to conserve limited financial resources, many candidates are buying 15-second timeslots for their ads. Because it’s cheaper to buy one 30-second slot than two 15-second slots, several media placement firms are saving money by buying 30-second timeslots and splitting the time between two candidates. Campaign officials clarified that the content of the ads would not be coordinated and that the ads would not even necessarily run back-to-back.
For example, Mark Martin, who was appointed Chief Justice Sept. 1 and is seeking a full term, pooled resources with other Republicans running for the Supreme Court. Martin and Eric Levinson, who is running for the seat currently held by Robin Hudson, have purchased 334 ad timeslots costing $176,000. Martin also partnered with Mike Robinson, who is running for the seat currently held by Cheri Beasley, to buy 482 ads worth nearly $104,000.
Martin purchased an additional 383 solo ads costing nearly $100,000. Paul Shumaker, with the Martin campaign, said the ads were “about building name awareness on a judicial race.”
The single biggest media buy was the nearly $437,000 committed for more than 900 ads split between Sam Ervin, who is running for the Supreme Court, and Mark Davis, who is running for re-election to the Court of Appeals. Ervin purchased an additional 29 solo ads costing $7,525.
Mike Davis, with the Ervin campaign, said that as a rule, the campaign doesn’t talk about its strategy or its ad buys, but said that the campaign was buying and adding more ads as it goes, and that purchasing them in this ways allows the campaign to “get double the exposure for half the cost.”
John Davis, a North Carolina-based political consultant not affiliated with any campaign, said that such tactical deployment of campaign resources for TV ads illustrated the importance of these races. (None of the people named Davis mentioned in this story are related to one another.)
“It’s just smart. There’s not a whole lot of money invested in court races, but they’re so influential. Everything that’s legislated today is litigated, and that’s why those races have become so important,” John Davis said. “But I assure you that these races have become so competitive that they’re bringing in the brightest political minds to make the judgment calls about how to win. That’s the unique thing about court races today that’s so different from 20 years ago, now it takes the highest levels of sophistication to win these things.”
There were some perhaps surprising pairings of campaigns that pooled resources. Robinson also teamed up with John Bryant, who is running for Wake County District Attorney, for a $130,000 media buy for 297 ads targeting the Raleigh area. (Robinson also purchased 81 solo ads for nearly $9,700.)
Bob Hunter, who is running against Ervin for the seat to which he was recently appointed, and Lucy Inman, who is running for a seat on the Court of Appeals, jointly purchased 155 ads costing $22,400. Hunter is a registered Republican and Inman is a registered Democrat, but both candidates use the same media placement firm, according to a representative with the Inman campaign. Hunter also bought 31 solo ads costing $15,375.
Justice at Stake did not report any media buys for Beasley or Hudson, or for Ola Lewis, who is running against Martin, and did not report on ad buys for other Court of Appeals candidates. It says the ads were slated to begin running on September 29 and continue through Election Day.
This is the first judicial election in North Carolina since the state repealed its program to publicly finance judicial campaigns in 2013.
Editors’s Note: This story was updated on Tue. Oct. 7 to reflect the latest data provided by Justice at Stake.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan