Omaha Voters Flooded With Political Ads From Iowa Caucuses

Jan. 28, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

These seven democratic candidates have aired TV ads in Omaha so far in 2019 and 2020. (Graphic by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

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The Iowa caucuses are in just six days, and democratic presidential candidates are vying for the support of Iowa voters. Many candidates are flooding the airwaves with television and radio ads, including on Omaha stations, where many viewers won’t vote until May.

Matthew Oberle lives in Omaha and watches several local TV stations. He sometimes switches to online streaming services to avoid political ads.

“It seems to be every commercial break there’s a political ad," Oberle said. "Every candidate wants to, I guess, put their best foot forward, so every commercial break you get to see a different one.”

So far in 2020, candidates for president have spent over $400,000 to air ads on Omaha TV stations. Campaign ads are also aired on Omaha radio stations. That’s despite the fact Nebraska voters won’t cast their primary votes until May.

As a TV viewer, Oberle isn’t a fan of the unintended early advertising.

“It feels like we’re spending a lot of money on things that are not that important, or things that will not reach the intended audience,” Oberle said.

The ads are meant to reach caucus-goers in Iowa, many of whom live in Council Bluffs or parts of western Iowa that are reached by Omaha TV and radio stations.

Randall Adkins is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He said while the ads may not seem relevant to Nebraska voters yet, campaigns may not have much of a choice when buying broadcast ads.

“It’s necessary," Adkins said. "You have to buy advertising in media markets, and media markets don’t pay attention to state boundaries traditionally.”

Campaigns really do want to reach Iowa voters. Adkins said TV and radio ads are a good way to do that.

“Political advertisements are one of the most effective methods of communication for reaching large numbers of voters," Adkins said. "The most effective method of communication, however, is when the candidate speaks directly to a voter.”

But when a candidate can’t personally meet every voter, TV and radio are good ways to reach thousands of people. As for Nebraska voters, Adkins doesn’t see much of a downside to people seeing and hearing political ads long before they cast their votes.

“I don’t think that many voters are gonna get turned off. I think in fact some voters will simply make their decision a little bit earlier, because they will have information or they’ll be paying attention to the campaign long before our primary occurs," Adkins said. "And other voters may simply ignore those ads until our primary date gets closer.”

Oberle falls into the first category. He said the political ads he’s seeing now probably won’t change his vote in May.

“I can’t say that they will. I think I’ve got my mind made up on who I’d like to vote for, and so I don’t think that any number of ads would sway my decision," Oberle said. "I think it would have to be something very radical at the last minute to come out that would sway me to vote for someone else.”

Oberle is 41 and watches local news in addition to primetime TV shows. Adkins says the way people get their political information is changing.

“A lot of political advertising today is coming through social media, and a lot of younger voters are getting their political information through that political advertising on social media,” Adkins said.

Despite the rise of online political ads, Adkins says Omaha is not alone in getting political ads meant for people in another state.

“It happens sometimes in bigger cities like Chicago, or sometimes in smaller communities like Huntington, West Virginia, where you might see the Ohio River divide a media market and part of that media market is in one state, and the other is in another state," Adkins said. "It’s pretty common that it happens, though.”

This phenomenon isn’t new for Omaha. Jim Harper lives there and sees political ads on TV several times a day. He says as a Nebraska native, he’s used to the ads, but they do sometimes change his viewing habits.

“Oh yeah, if they’re coming on thick I just turn it off entirely, or I watch Netflix or some other non-network television option,” Harper said.

Harper also had some perspective from another early primary state.

“I have a relative who lives in New Hampshire, and it’s even worse there," Harper said. "We were comparing notes a couple of elections ago and yeah, we really have nothing to complain about.”

Omaha voters will likely get a reprieve from the ads when the Iowa caucus ends next week. However, the ads will likely be back in time for the Nebraska primary in May.