You know political season in Hawaii has really begun when candidates start spending money buying television airtime.

Bob Marx, a Democrat running for the 2nd Congressional District, began airing TV spots in December — the first 2012 candidate to do so.

He has already spent nearly $25,000 in television advertising to get his name out there. That’s three times the amount spent by one of his four primary opponents, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. (Although Mufi has his own radio show every Saturday.)

Hannemann is the heavyweight in the CD2 race, but the primary contest for the U.S. Senate between Democrats Ed Case and Mazie Hirono is a tossup. The bigger race has attracted bigger bucks, with the former congressman having already spent $81,500 — more than twice as much as his rival, the sitting congresswoman.

The ad buys represent only the very beginning of the 2012 election — through Feb. 5, actually. But, it’s clear that contenders in hot races are already jockeying to persuade voters by reaching them in their living rooms.

The ads live on via YouTube where they have the potential to reach the greatest number of viewers, a deeper penetration than comes from print and radio advertising.

Add to that the expected influx of unbridled spending by mainland super PACS seeking to sway Hawaii’s federal election — thanks to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — and local voters this season may witness a media blitz unlike any that has come before.

Mufi and Marx: Football

First out of the gate was Democrat Marx, a Hilo attorney.

An unknown candidate to most voters, Marx introduced himself statewide beginning Dec. 17 via $14,000 worth of adds (tax included) on Oceanic Time Warner Cable on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and in Kona and Hilo on the Big Island.

The 30-second spots, which ran until Jan. 9, appeared during college bowl games on the three ESPN stations and on Animal Planet, CNBC, HNL, FX, History and Spike.

“Today more than ever, the people of America are disenchanted,” Marx’s ad begins.

Marx then paid KGMB $3,600 to run a single 30-second spot during the AFC Championship game on Jan. 22 to reach the coveted demographic of adults aged 25-54.

On Sunday, Marx ran three more 30-second ads, this time during the Super Bowl pre-game shows. KHNL billed him $6,800.

The second candidate to run TV ads was Hannemann. Like Marx, Hannemann went for the football audience.

“Like in football, getting things done in government can be a game of inches,” Hannemann tells the audience.

His campaign spent $6,300 in mid-January to run spots on KGMB during the AFC Divisional Playoffs and AFC Championship. In late January Hannemann paid KHNL $2,100 to run ads during Hawaii News Now’s “Sunrise,” 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. news, “Entertainment Tonight” and the NFL Pro Bowl.

Hannemann leads his opponents in fundraising so far, with more than a half-million in his treasure chest. But Marx also raised more than $210,000, most of it from himself; by the end of 2011 he had also spent all but $50,000.

A third candidate, Honolulu Council Member Tulsi Gabbard, has the money to pay for ads, too — she’s banked $312,000 — but as of Feb. 3 had only made ad inquiries with TV stations.

‘Colbert,’ ‘Hardball,’ ‘The View’

Beginning Jan. 23, Case launched his first TV ad, produced by local firm Olomama Loomis.

It was a mild piece titled “Strong Effective Leadership” (e.g., “Who can get the job done? That’s what this election is really about.”) A second, more pointed spot — “Mazie or Ed: Think About It,” featuring testimonials — was released Jan. 29.

(View both ads here.)

Case has thus far paid Oceanic Time Warner Cable $12,000 for airtime. The ads, all of them 30 seconds in length, ran on more than two dozen cable programs, most of them involving politics, business and sports.

Case’s ads have appeared on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report”; “The Rachel Maddow Show,” “Hardball With Chris Matthews” and “Last Word With Lawrence O’Connell”: CNN Newsroom, “Anderson Cooper” and “Piers Morgan”; and during President Obama’s “State of the Union.”

Case also ran spots on ESPN and the Golf channel (e.g., “Euro PGA Tour: Abu Dhabi”), and CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street,” “Power Lunch” and “Fast Money.” The Oceanic spots for Case also include one that ran Feb. 4 during a University of Hawaii Wahine basketball game.

A combined $69,500, meanwhile, has been spent for advertising on KGMB, KHNL, KFVE, KITV and KHON.

A good chunk of that money paid for ads that ran during local and national news programming.

But it also went to ads that ran the daytime gamut from “The View” and “Dr. Oz” to “Dr. Phil” and “Ellen. Primetime spots appeared on “Harry’s Law” and “The Firm.” Game shows like “Jeopardy” and “The Price Is Right” saw an appearance by Case. And how could he miss local fave “Hot Hawaiian Nights.”

Case, it appears, is trying to appeal to a whole lot of people. His challenge will be in keeping it up.

As of Tuesday, Case’s latest fundraising report — which shows contributions and expenditures through Dec. 31 — had not been made public by the Federal Election Commission, so we don’t know how much money he has. But, through Sept. 30, Case had raised just $355,000 compared with Hirono’s $584,000, though Hirono entered the Senate race several months after Case.

Mazie and Hawaii News Now, CNN

Hirono’s first TV ad launched on Feb. 1, two days after Case released his second TV spot. It’s produced by Dixon/Davis Media Group out of Washington, D.C.

The spot, titled “Forward,” compares Hirono with Case and Republican Linda Lingle, attempting to align both opponents with the fiscal and foreign policy record of former President George W. Bush.

(The ad also falsely characterize’s Case’s voting record on the Bush tax cuts.)

Hirono paid $9,365 to Oceanic Time Warner Cable and a total of $29,500 to KGMB, KHNL, KFVE, KITV and KHON.

Like Case, Hirono’s ad ran on the morning and evening network news programs, including Hawaii News Now’s “Sunrise” and the “NBC Today Show.”

Compared with Case, however, Hirono’s ad did not run as often on non-news programming. Two major exceptions: “Wheel of Fortune” and “Entertainment Tonight.”

On Oceanic, however, Hirono sought wider audiences. Like Case, they included airtime during “Colbert” and “The Daily Show.” Still, the focus remained heavily on news, including during programs on CNN and MSNBC.

With more money than Case — she had over $1 million in cash on hand in the most recent reporting period — Hirono may not have to start spending big on TV ads just yet.

She will also need to have something in reserve if she is to prevail over Case and face the well-funded Lingle in the general. Case, by contrast, seems focused on spending what he has early to get an edge on Hirono, with the hopes that more money will flow his way after an Aug. 11 primary win.

The Hawaii Market

Why buy ads during TV news? Isn’t that audience dropping?

Yes, but it is still a loyal audience that can be counted on to pay attention to the news and to turn out to vote.

Ads during “The View” or “Colbert,” meanwhile, target specific demographics such as women and educated voters. And a lot of people from all walks of life watch “Wheel of Fortune.”

Hawaii candidates typically only buy TV ad time from week to week, or at most for an entire month. In some cases, buys come just a day or two before an ad runs.

Unlike some mainland markets, candidates do not typically pay for airtime months in advance — even to secure spots in the weeks leading up to the primary and general elections.

The reason, say those in the know, is that it depends a lot on how much money a candidate has to spend; TV stations require payment in advance, and they can charge what they wish.

Candidates do not risk being being blocked from buying ad time as a race nears the finish line, however; the stations will make room for them. In fact, Federal Communications Commission rules require it.

Generally, TV buys in campaigns come in three cycles: the first six months of an election year (the period we are in now); the 60 days prior to the primary, which this year means beginning in early June; and the window between the primary and the general elections.

Of course, TV is blanketed with ads in the weeks leading up to Election Day. If some issue emerges during a campaign that must be countered quickly, most media firms can get a new spot on the air within 24 hours.

What complicates things is the trend toward mail-in or absentee voting, in which case people will be sending in their ballots weeks and months before election day.

Which may explain why Hirono, Case, Hannemann and Marx are already on the air.

For more on Hawaii’s 2012 elections, including how to register and when you can begin voting, check out Civil Beat’s Elections Guide

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