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Candidates finding value in newspaper ads

When Mike Rounds was a scrappy Cinderella candidate for South Dakota governor in 2002, he had a limited budget, but he had big ideas.

When it came to advertising, Rounds departed from the traditional campaign strategy of heavy television advertising and worked with the Pierre Capital Journal staff to send print ads out to newspapers across South Dakota.

"I couldn't afford do a lot of advertising. I was making my own ads for newspaper and TV. I thought I was getting a better return with my money going to newspapers," Rounds said. "They helped increase my name ID. It was a message I could control in an ad, and I could tailor them to my needs in the campaign."

Twelve years later, the two-term Republican governor is widely favored in South Dakota's U.S. Senate race, and he has vowed to raise and spend more than $9 million to maintain his lead. With a healthy budget, his affection for newspaper advertising has only deepened.

He is especially fond of weekly newspapers, which he describes as a kind of community glue that reaches the countryside and into the state's larger metro areas.

"In South Dakota there are lots of weekly newspapers, and a lot of people who live in the larger metro areas of Rapid City and Sioux Falls come from small towns. One of the ways they stay in touch is they still get that weekly newspaper," Rounds said. "The weeklies stick around. They're a document and are not thrown out right away. They will be on the kitchen table or the magazine rack by the easy chair. People read them."

In 2002, Rounds said the ads served as an introduction as he campaigned door-to-door.

"I remember walking into some homes and them saying, 'We saw your ad in the paper and here you are at the front door,' " Rounds said.

That experience made it easy to reject advice from campaign consultants in Washington, D.C.

"They told us to dump newspaper advertising and go all TV. We smiled and said, 'Thank you very much, we really appreciate it.' Then we went back and ran our own campaign," Rounds said.

Dave Bordewyk of the South Dakota Newspaper Association remembers Rounds crediting his 2002 success to newspaper ads, and he notes the research that shows heavy overlap between newspaper readers and voters.

"At least eight in 10 South Dakota voters are newspaper readers, according to our research and surveys," Bordewyk said. "We continue to represent South Dakota newspapers aggressively to all the statewide candidates and campaigns as an effective means to reach voters."

So far in 2014, about $250,000 has been spent on political ads through the SDNA's statewide advertising program.

The highwater mark for political newspaper advertising -- and perhaps all campaign advertising in South Dakota -- came in the 2004 U.S. Senate race between former Republican Congressman John Thune and then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

Total campaign spending went north of $20 million, with some reports as high as $30 million, plus outside groups heavily advertised during that cycle when a Senate leader's seat was on the line.

In 2004, more than $2.4 million in campaign funds went towards newspaper advertising, smashing the state newspaper association's record for political spending through it's program to book advertising statewide. The previous record was $540,000 spent in 2002.

Thune edged out Daschle, and Thune's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, credits one newspaper ad in particular with pushing voters to Thune in the campaign's final weeks. The campaign took out double, full-page ads on Halloween -- a Sunday. It reprinted a Wall Street Journal editorial that listed bills significant to South Dakota that the paper believed Daschle had a hand in stalling or killing.

"The ad featured ghosts and goblins each carrying a tombstone with a particular issue mentioned," Wadhams said. "I think it really drove home the 'obstructionist' charge we were leveling against Daschle that couldn't have been done as effectively in a television ad.

"The Thune campaign spent a great deal of money on full-page newspaper ads during the heat of the general election campaign, and I will always believe they had a major impact on the race."

Wadhams said newspapers were a port in a storm of TV advertising for campaigns seeking to reach voters with messages.

"Both sides were buying every second of television time they could -- and we did have some great TV ads -- along with outside groups, so the TV airwaves were saturated," Wadhams said. "Our newspaper ads gave us the ability to cut through to undecided voters who were starting to really turn their attention on the race in those final weeks."

Ten years later, Wadhams is advising Rounds in his race, and they use daily newspaper ads to coordinate with messages that go out on TV and other media.

As Democrat Rick Weiland and independents Larry Pressler and Gordon Howie work to catch Rounds, newspaper ads figure in their strategies, too.

For Weiland, small-town weekly newspapers seem a perfect fit for his entire campaign strategy of visiting every town in South Dakota multiple times.

"Staying with our grassroots campaign of visiting every town in South Dakota, we sent customized ads picturing me in front of the town sign with some copy about talking to the voters and my plan to start visiting these towns again," Weiland said. "We got a lot of feedback for the unique approach — having actually been to the town and a picture to prove it."

Pressler said he is putting together a statewide newspaper ad buy, but is constrained by the limited budget of an independent candidate.

"I love newspaper advertising, but I just can't afford very much," said Pressler, a former Republican senator. "When I was a candidate for the Republican Party and was able to receive party-related money, I had a reputation for buying the most weekly and daily ads of anybody."

Howie said he, too, faces budget constraints but he hopes to buy newspaper ads.

"The dailies and weeklies in South Dakota are a significant media to communicate with people. We haven't got any of the big dollars from out of state. We are still depending on faithful South Dakota supporters, so we don't know yet what our print media budget will even be. We hope to be there, though," Howie said.