LEWISTON — The group pushing for a casino in Oxford County has bought more than $1 million of television airtime in Portland, Bangor and Presque Isle, records show.
The Vote Yes on 1 campaign ads likely will begin airing the week of Aug. 16 and run until Election Day, Nov. 2 .
It's an early move for any campaign and a sizable amount of advertising, said Michael Franz, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College.
Franz, who studies American political campaigns and is familiar with Maine's political landscape, said the move by Vote Yes on 1, the political action committee supporting the casino, is unusual for Maine.
"A million dollars — in Maine — is a lot of money," Franz said.
Even in the state's smallest television market, Vote Yes on 1 has made substantial airtime buys.
Records at WAGM, a CBS affiliate station in Presque Isle, show the campaign spending $115,315 over a 12-week period, peaking with 56 ad spots per week from Sept. 27 through Oct. 15.
In the Portland market, which includes Lewiston and Auburn, WGME, a CBS affiliate, and WCSH, an NBC affiliate, declined to disclose how much had been contracted on airtime buys by either casino advocates or opponents. According to general managers at both stations, Federal Communications Commission rules to disclose political advertising buys only apply if the issue is of national interest. Each deemed the statewide vote on the casino a local or statewide issue.
Steve Thaxton, general manager and president of WCSH, said he based a decision that the records were not public on the advice of the station's attorney and its corporate board.
Records at the Portland-based FOX affiliate WPFO show the pro-casino campaign has purchased $54,175 in airtime for spots between Aug. 16 and Nov. 1. Records made available at WMTW, the Auburn-based ABC affiliate, show the campaign purchased $113,987 in airtime.
One station in the Bangor media market, WABI, another CBS affiliate, refused to disclose the information. Figures provided to the Sun Journal by another source showed the campaign purchased $240,000 in advertising.
The FOX, ABC and NBC affiliates in the Bangor market, WFVX, WVII and WLBZ, all released information showing the campaign buying airtime at those stations. WFVX showed contracts totaling $21,740; WVII records showed $62,155; and WLBZ, $75,696.
A big airtime buy early in the campaign locks in premium time slots and ensures a campaign can get time during the key days before Election Day, Franz said.
"Advertising works, especially if you have more ads than your competitor," he said. But big television ad campaigns have not always worked, and Mainers don't always vote for those who spend the most on advertising, as the gubernatorial primaries showed in June. "It's not a guarantee of success," Franz said.
An early, big airtime ad might also make a campaign vulnerable, said Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for CasinosNo!, a PAC formed to oppose casino gambling in Maine.
Bailey, who has been involved in the five recent casino ballot initiatives in Maine, said ad representatives at the various stations routinely disclose the amount political clients are spending to competing interests, especially in the case of statewide campaigns.
"It's standard practice the buyers are always able to get the buys for competitors," Bailey said. "I think the ad reps tip them off."
Bailey provided the Sun Journal with the ad buy amounts for WCSH, WGME and WABI showing Vote Yes on 1 buying $277,500 in airtime from WCSH; $240,000 at WABI and $115,000 at WGME.
Those numbers were provided to ad buyers for his marketing company, Savvy Inc. But Bailey said he could not say for sure where they came from.
He also provided numbers for the other stations, which were independently verified by reporters at the Sun Journal and the Bangor Daily News.
The buy amounts provided by Bailey matched the records at the stations where records could be accessed.
Showing their cards
Bailey said knowing his potential opponents are spending at least $1 million gives him a useful tool as he seeks financial support to oppose the measure.
"You can tell your potential donors how much your opponents are spending and what it looks like you will need," he said.
The biggest-spending opponent Bailey has faced on a casino issue spent about $7 million on its campaign, he said. But even then the opponent was buying ads week to week and not all at once.
Pat LaMarche, who worked as a campaign spokeswoman on a failed Oxford County casino campaign in 2008, said the big ad buy up front may also have a psychological effect and serve to intimidate potential opponents.
"If you bring out guns big enough, nobody else wants to fight you," LaMarche said. "Even CasinosNo!, or whatever they are calling themselves these days, they might bat an eyelash at that; that might be an intimidating sign of strength."
LaMarche said there are other reasons to buy ad time early, including to lock in the time you know you'll need in what's bound to be a crowded political-advertising market in the fall, especially with a governor's race on the ballot.
"It's a damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead kind of approach and you don't let somebody else buy the best (available advertising spots)," she said. "You've got to show your cards if you want to buy the most avails."
LaMarche, who still supports a casino for Oxford County, said for supporters a big, early ad buy is a good sign. "It's a good thing for Maine because it shows they don't intend to lose and it also sounds like they have a pretty deep pocket."
Randy Seaver, a staffer for the Vote Yes on 1 campaign, said that wasn't necessarily the case.
"We are working with Maine investors so it's not some huge deep pockets here that we have to tap," Seaver said.
He said he expects casino opponents to spend a lot of money between now and November. Penn National, the parent company of Hollywood Slots, spent $38 million on advertising to oppose a competing casino in Ohio in 2008.
Seaver couldn't confirm the Yes on 1 campaign had already lined up $1 million worth of advertising and wouldn't say, if he knew, how much more they planned to spend.
"But clearly, (advertising) is going to be a big part of this campaign," Seaver said.
Question 1 on the statewide November ballot asks: "Do you want to allow a casino with table games and slot machines at a single site in Oxford County, subject to local approval, with part of the profits going to specific state, local and tribal programs?"
The casino is backed by Black Bear Entertainment, a group of Maine investors led by Steve Barber of Barber Foods in Portland, who envision an expansive resort that includes a casino, hotel, convention center and outdoor recreational opportunities. The cost is estimated to be $184 million, according to published reports.
Dan Cashman, a spokesman for the recently formed political action committee Citizens Against the Oxford Casino, which is backed primarily by Hollywood Slots Hotel & Raceway in Bangor, said he couldn’t comment on that campaign's advertising buys.
Citizens Against the Oxford Casino also represents the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs, the Maine Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association, the Maine Harness Horsemen's Association, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“What it tells us, I guess, is that we’re going to have to get out there and have our conversation with voters as well," Cashman said of the ad buys of the Vote Yes on 1 PAC. "We still think this is a bad deal for Maine.”
Bailey said CasinosNo! has not developed a campaign or advertising strategy. Much would depend on what the Citizens Against the Oxford Casino group has planned, he said.
“I think we’ll be doing some ads," Bailey said."We always do.”
The Bangor Daily News, freelance writer Deborah Parks in Presque Isle and Sun Journal Staff Writer Chris Williams contributed to this report.