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Do Minnesota issue ads have much impact?

In general, legislators believe the ads are a waste of money — at least in creating an immediate public groundswell.

Minnesotans United ad featuring former GOP Rep. John Kriesel.

About the only people who don’t see — or hear — the deluge of special-interest political commercials filling Minnesota airwaves are the legislators themselves.

Throughout the legislative session, ads opposing tax increases, supporting gay marriage, opposing elimination of tests for school kids, supporting background checks for gun owners [MP3] have been a constant.

Toss in thousands of social media messages, and it’s obvious that political background noise is louder than ever.

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But, in general, legislators believe the ads are a waste of money — at least in creating an immediate public groundswell.

For certain, legislators, who spend many of their evenings in committee hearings or at meetings back in their districts aren’t being directly swayed by the commercials.

“There’s just no time to watch television,” said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska.

Legislators aren’t direct audience

But, of course, legislators aren’t the direct target of the ads, which usually are meant to rouse constituents or set the agenda for the ever-present “next election.”

There are times, Hoppe said, when he knows there’s been an ad campaign in play because he’ll receive a spurt of e-mails on a specific subject. But even those e-mails have little impact because most legislators have a strong idea of what matters to their constituents long before the session begins.

In his case, Hoppe said, he learns more about what his constituents are thinking from hanging out at River City Days in Chaska each summer than he’ll ever learn from any reaction he’ll receive to paid media campaigns.

Other legislators also say most ad campaigns  have no impact on swaying them, especially late in the session when the agenda is set. 

But the special-interest ads keeping coming.

The biggest player this year has been an entity called United for Jobs, which is the creation of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Business Partnership. There’s been a steady diet of ads,  frequently run during sporting events.

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 The theme of this round of business-supported ads:  “Tell your representative you support cutting government waste over raising taxes.”

The narrator in one portion of the commercial, Loren Corle, is CEO of Relco Unisystems Corp., an international dairy and food processing outfit. In the commercial, Corle wears a blue collar and a hard hat.

No impact? Weaver disagrees

Charlie Weaver, who heads the Minnesota Business Partnership, doesn’t buy the no-impact comments of legislators. He believes that the United for Jobs ad campaign has made a difference in business-related policies this session.

 “I think the Senate floor vote [on the omnibus tax bill] was evidence of the impact of the campaign,” said Weaver.

Recall that because of apparent confusion in its own caucus, DFLers first defeated — and then barely passed — the tax bill. Nonetheless, by the time the House, Senate and the governor mix and match their proposals, taxes will go up.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is convinced that the money people behind United for Jobs understand the reality that they’re not buying anything at the session with their campaign dollars.

“It’s not about the Legislature,” said Winkler of United for Jobs campaign. “We know the opinions of those organizations already. They have people [lobbyists] at the Capitol every day telling us their opinions. What the ads are about is the next election. There may be 18 House districts in play, and they are trying to set the narrative for those elections.”

Laughing, Winkler added that DFLers can’t be too upset by the United for Jobs campaign. The effort to “set the narrative” is imitating the success Alliance for a Better Minnesota had in setting the narrative for recent DFL electoral successes, he said.

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Alliance for a Better Minnesota is the organization funded by labor and friends and family of the governor’s. It hasn’t taken a breather between elections. In fact, it’s busily trying to “set the narrative’’ for the gubernatorial race of 2014.

When  wealthy Republican businessman Scott Honour announced his intention to seek the GOP nomination for governor, the Alliance pounced quickly, releasing on YouTube a video comparing Honour to Mitt Romney.

As a former DFL representative, Mindy Greiling, who retired after last session, is seeing the scope of the ad campaigns for the first time.

Like Hoppe, Greiling said she was far too busy to be paying attention to television when she was a legislator.  And like Hoppe, Greiling said she didn’t need a TV ad to make her aware of what her constituents were thinking.

She believes that most people have become too sophisticated to pay attention to the ads.

“When I see the names of the organizations that are buying the ads, I assume the message is the opposite of what the name implies,” she said. “If it’s [the ad] is paid for by ‘We Love Blue Skies,’ I assume it’s a polluter paying for the ad.”

The reality is it’s the campaigns most of us don’t see that likely are the most effective.

Ad campaigns often target members

Legislators wonder why large organizations, such as Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers’ union, bother with costly television ad campaigns. Those organizations are ideally positioned to have their members directly contact their local legislators.

Weaver, who for 10 years (1989-1999) was a state rep, said legislators are far more likely to pay attention to receiving 10 calls from teachers in their home district than they are to responding to a teachers union’s  televised ad.

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Corporate campaigns try to imitate the approach unions can use to target local legislators. Targeting has been around for a while, although it has become more sophisticated with every step “forward” in social media. 

Greiling recalls tobacco companies being the first to patch people directly through to their representatives a couple of decades ago.

A person would receive a call from a firm representing the tobacco company.

Tobacco company: “Do you think it’s right that the Legislature is taking away your right to enjoy a smoke?”

 Smoker: “No, I don’t.”

 Tobacco company: “Would you like us to put you in contact with your legislator, right now so you can tell him what you think?’’

Smoker: “Why yes I would.”

 The caller would be “patched” directly to the office of his or her state legislator.

 “Usually, the callers being patched through were so surprised and so flustered, they really didn’t have much to say,” recalled Greiling.

The issues-oriented ad campaigns around such things as constitutional amendments, in which voters have a direct say, are the most meaningful. In recent years, ads on the legacy amendment, the voting amendment and the marriage amendment may have had significant impact on changing hearts and minds.

But there’s doubt as to the effectiveness of the old-fashioned mass media ad buys on “more global issues.”

Ad campaigns, for example, had little impact on the gun debate, or lack thereof, this session. Most legislators were locked into their positions on guns before the session started.

 Ironically, Protect Minnesota, the organization pushing for stronger gun control measures in the state, was to release a radio ad campaign last week, which was when House Speaker Paul Thissen announced that the House would not take up any gun bills this session.

Rallying the troops

The Protect Minnesota spot apparently was geared to rally the troops, not change minds. It was to be played on “middle of the road’’ metro-area music stations with large female audiences, according to Heather Martens, who heads Protect Minnesota. There apparently was no thought of running the spot statewide.

Martens’ group did rely on phone-banking and patching to show rural legislators that there is support for such things as tougher background checks, even in rural districts.

“We patched hundreds of [rural] calls directly through to legislators,’’ she said.

Both the NRA and such groups as Protect Minnesota have a passionate, grass-roots base. Both will be back to fight another day both in Washington and St. Paul.

The United for Jobs campaign, on the other hand, appears to be an effort to build grass-roots support.  Its ads pop up frequently during telecasts of Minnesota Twins baseball games.

“The ads are targeted at a demographic,” said Weaver. “In this case [the ballgame ads], you’ve got middle-class men. We’re trying to get people engaged.”

If not for this session, the next election.