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Health Care Battle Takes to the Airwaves

July 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As lawmakers and the president wrangle over the details of health care reform, interest groups across the political spectrum are taking to the airwaves in response to the numerous proposals coming out of Washington. Media expert Evan Tracey speaks with Ray Suarez about the ads.

RAY SUAREZ: As the debate over health reform rages on Capitol Hill, interest groups and political parties are stepping up the war of words on television.

For months, ads designed to catch the attention of politicians and opinion makers have run in Washington, D.C. Now the battle is moving, on cable and broadcast TV, out to legislators’ home states and districts.

I’m joined by Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a nonpartisan group that tracks political and public affairs advertising.

And, Evan, it seems like there’s not only more ads, but more ads coming from new entrants entering the argument.

EVAN TRACEY, Campaign Media Analysis Group: Yes, every day we’re seeing this battle escalate. It’s about $45 million has been spent so far. The average daily spending right now is approaching almost $2 million. So it is really stepping up right now.

RAY SUAREZ: And, interestingly, mentioning specific legislators?

EVAN TRACEY: Yes, this is the second phase of this battle. This is ads that are going out now to these districts, into congressional districts as well as Senate districts, really trying to gin up pressure back in the home states for these members of Congress to either get behind health care reform or stand against health care reform. So we’re seeing that aspect of this lobbying effort go into the states now.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s take a look at a sample of ads meant to increase public support for reform and target specific members.

NARRATOR: Now I find out that Congressman Eric Cantor voted against health care reform that would stop insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions like cancer. He wants me to fight cancer and the insurance companies? Fine, I’ll take you both on.

NARRATOR: Premiums that have doubled over the past decade, rising co-pays and more out-of-pocket expenses. The cost of doing nothing means families faced with choosing between paying the mortgage or paying for health care. Senator Richard Burr said reforming our health care system is ludicrous. Call Senator Burr and ask him to stand with you and not the special interests.

NARRATOR: Illness doesn’t care where you live or if you’re already sick or if you lose your job. Your health insurance shouldn’t either. So let’s fix health care.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s a remarkable range of groups involved. I guess it’s no surprise, since health is such a big part of the American economy.

EVAN TRACEY: Yes, I mean, this is exactly right. I mean, you’ve got a lot of different stakeholders right now. You have a lot of interest groups. There’s a lot of horsepower behind these messages right now, and you’re really starting to see that reflect. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

RAY SUAREZ: And interesting new alliances that you hadn’t seen before in political advertising.

EVAN TRACEY: Absolutely. You’re seeing a lot of the industry groups that were actually against health care reform in the ’90s, at least to this point, kind of cheerleading health care reform with their advertising. So you are seeing this sort of blending between some of the traditional groups that have been on different sides of this issue, at least so far.

Ads against legislation

RAY SUAREZ: Let's take a look at a sample of ads meant to reduce public support for changing America's health care system.

NARRATOR: It could add a trillion to the federal deficit. New rules could hike your health insurance premiums 95 percent. You still might end up on their government-run health plan.

NARRATOR: That's just what some in Congress are talking about. We all want to improve health care, but taxes never made anyone healthy. Education, exercise, and balanced diets do that.

NARRATOR: Barack Obama's massive spending experiment hasn't healed our economy. His new experiment risks their future and our health. The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this ad.

RAY SUAREZ: In the political ad game, are people who want things to stay the way they are in generally a better position than people who want to change things?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, this is the part of this debate where you're going to see in the advertising a lot of picking out different pieces of the various plans and turning them into basically commercials to sort of get that emotional response, get people a little bit afraid of what health care reform could mean to them, what a government program could mean to them.

You know, this is typical in political advertising. You want to get that emotional response. Just like the ads we just looked at that were for health care reform, they're really looking to get people emotional about this issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Harry and Louise are back. The stars of the 1993 air war are part of the debate today. And why don't we take a look at that typical American couple, then and now?

"LOUISE": Another billion-dollar bureaucracy.

"HARRY": You know, we just don't need government monopolies to get health coverage to everyone.

"LOUISE": Congress can fix that.

"HARRY": And they will if we send them that message.

"LOUISE": And coverage they can keep if they change jobs.

"HARRY": Or lose their jobs. Sounds simple enough.

"LOUISE": A little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time.

RAY SUAREZ: Evan, they switched teams. What happened?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, what would health care reform be without them, Ray? Look, this, in the '90s, it was a very effective campaign, because it was more or less happening in a vacuum. In other words, there were not all these groups like you have today running advertisements. And they became sort of part of the story, and the press really amplified them, and they were very effective in sort of picking apart the Clinton plan over time.

Now I think they're more symbolic. In other words, I don't think they can have the same impact with these ads that were in the '90s. But this is really a symbol of health care reform, and they're being brought in on the other side, which, again, I think, sort of helps within the inside-the-Beltway opinion-leader audience, but I'm not sure most Americans will make that connection with these spots.

More emotionally charged ads

RAY SUAREZ: Just the other day, the president conceded that there won't be final votes on final versions of these bills in August as he had wanted. How does that change the way you plan an ad strategy?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, I think the August deadline had a lot to do with the fact that they knew, if you get this into the fall, when television viewership starts to go up, people get back from vacations, the kids are back in school, the days get shorter, TV ratings go up, more people watch these kind of commercials.

It was a very favorable cycle for them before the August recess, because you have really low viewership, low turnout on people watching television, so the strategy, I think, now is going to change a lot.

I think if this goes into a long, protracted environment, you're going to see a lot more emotionally charged ads. You're going to see ads go into House districts, which we hadn't seen up until a couple of days ago. These ads that have gone out have primarily gone to Senate states.

So I think you're seeing right now that there's a lot of nervous energy on both sides of this issue, and they're going to put their money into a lot of states from August, basically as long as this debate rages on.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, you mentioned emotionally charged, but tougher ads, as well?

EVAN TRACEY: Absolutely. I think you're going to see some very clear lines. I think it's very clear that the forces in favor of health care reform are going to start to pull out the insurance companies. The forces against health care reform are going to start to try and paint a caricature of what a government-run health care system might look like.

So I think these ads are going to get a lot sharper, a lot nastier, and you're going to see a lot more of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Evan Tracey, thanks a lot.

EVAN TRACEY: Happy to do it.

JIM LEHRER: On our Web site,, there's more on health care, including an end-of-the-week wrap-up from our health correspondent, Betty Ann Bowser.