LSU journalism dean meets at freewheeling forum to discuss future of Reveille _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Jerry Ceppos, dean of the LSU Manship School of Mass Communications, left, and LSU Professor Martin Johnson prepare for a forum in 2015.

You might be forgiven for missing the U.S. Senate race’s biggest rollout of television commercials – what with checking your smartphone and fast-forwarding through DVR’d programs.

With 30 days to go before the Nov. 8 primary election, the television stations reported last week to federal authorities massive buys for commercials. Last year at this time, during the governor’s race, voters already were well versed on the infidelities of Sen. David Vitter, how Scott Angelle handled the Bayou Corne sinkhole and Jay Dardenne’s travel to Europe.

Not so much in the 2016 campaign for Vitter’s seat.

Police shootings, murdered cops, massive flooding, and a bitter presidential campaign have distracted many voters’ attentions. But, with the exception of white supremacist David Duke, who polls show is not really a factor, the race’s “well-known” candidates aren’t household names, nor very charismatic.

For all of John N. Kennedy’s folksy patter, the longtime state treasurer is trained as a bond attorney. U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany’s bearing is still one of a cardiothoracic surgeon about to deliver the bad news. And U.S. Rep. John Fleming showed up to a muggy 4th of July Day parade in a rural Cajun town wearing pressed khaki slacks.

Polls show a statistical dead heat with at least a quarter of the voters still undecided. Candidates need to stick their head above the crowd if they hope to make the Dec. 10 runoff, said Martin Johnson, an LSU professor who studies communications in the realm of politics. It’s just a little harder this campaign.

Study after study shows a dramatic change in viewing habits. Fewer than half the viewers in one recent survey reported they primarily watch live television. The second most popular practice is recording programs, then skipping the commercials.

“Of course, voters are also getting their political news from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media,” Johnson said. “But, voters still rely on television for a lot of their political information.”

The campaigns themselves have been trying to create buzz about their ads with emails praising their spots. Republican Boustany’s spokesman, Jack Pandol, last week claimed “rave reviews” for one that parodied fellow Republican Kennedy’s “getting to know you” commercial.

Fleming released a commercial that likened the bickering between Boustany and Kennedy to a “junior high food fight,” which Johnson called a “bank shot negative spot.”

On the other hand, this is probably the first campaign in history in which one of the major candidates runs an ad promising to commit suicide – “drink weed killer”, Kennedy says – rather than be a political insider.

While Kennedy’s commercials are sticking to his views on things, a national Super PAC backing him is funding TV spots that go after Boustany and Fleming. One ad by the ESAFund calls Boustany and Fleming millionaires (they are) and places photos of the two Republicans next to one of Democratic President Barack Obama.

The ESAFund, based in Washington, reportedly received a couple million dollars from a Louisiana political action committee supporting Kennedy. ESAFund reported to federal authorities last week its Super PAC spent $154,229 to run spots against Boustany, $119,990 against Fleming and $110,420 in support of Kennedy.

The trick to politicking in an ADD-HD TV world is repetition and message, which means spending about 30 percent more money on television ads than in the past, says Roy Fletcher, a veteran political strategist and media buyer.

The technology makes for a more cluttered atmosphere, but Fletcher said today is still similar to the 1995 gubernatorial race when he engineered Mike Foster’s breakout from a pack of 16 candidates.

In Louisiana’s unique primary system, in which candidates of all political parties run together, the goal for a candidate is to mobilize more of his targeted supporters than the other guy.

Fletcher produced and aired commercials showing little-known Foster – a patrician whose planter grandfather had been governor – in hunting camouflage talking about his Christian faith. “People said, ‘Yeah, he’s like me’,” Fletcher recalled.

In the 2016 Senate races, Fletcher said the Democratic candidates – Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell and lawyer Caroline Fayard – are doing a better job breaking through the clutter than the feuding Republicans.

Campbell and Fayard both talk about raising the minimum wage and enforcing equal pay between men and women. Both issues poll well in Louisiana, though they’re staunchly opposed by the business community and are an anathema for conservatives.

They won’t win crossover voters, but that’s not the point in the open primary.

“Essentially, what they’re doing is ringing the bell for Democrats and white progressives. They’re saying ‘Hey look up from your laptop, vote for me, I’m one of you,’” Fletcher said.

Email Mark Ballard, The Advocate's Capitol Bureau chief, at mballard@theadvocate.com.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.