Political Advertising in the United States: Sample Chapters


Excerpted below are chapters from  Political Advertising in the United States, First Edition by Erika Franklin Fowler, Michael M. Franz, and Travis N. Ridout. 

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface [sampled below]

Chapter 1: Introduction [sampled below]
Why Study Political Advertising?
Four Key Arguments
History of Campaign Advertising
Tracking Television Advertising
Plan of the Book
Discussion Questions

Chapter 2: The Regulation of Advertising [sampled below]
The Rules of Campaign Financing
The Impact of the Rules
Discussion Questions

Chapter 3: The Volume and Content of Political Advertising
Volume of Television Advertising
Tone of Political Advertising
Issues in Political Advertising
Discussion Questions

Chapter 4: How Ads Are Created and Tested
The Elements of a Political Ad
Making the Ad
The Internet, Social Media, and Advertising
Discussion Questions

Chapter 5: Buying and Targeting Political Advertising on Television
Buying Decisions
Advertising on Different Television Networks
Targeting Political Advertising
The Changing Media Landscape and Its Eff ect on Voters
Examining Ad Targeting Through Ad Airings and Media Consumption
Discussion Questions

Chapter 6: The Internet, Social Media, and Advertising
Paid Online Media
Earned Online Media
How Are Social Media Platforms Changing Campaigns?
Discussion Questions

Chapter 7: Influence and Persuasion: Studying the Intended Effects of Advertising
The History of Media Influence Research and Current Challenges
What We Know about Advertising’s Ability to Persuade
How Do We Know What We Know? The Importance of Research Design
Discussion Questions

Chapter 8: The Unintended Effects of Advertising
What Do We Learn From Advertising?
Do We Accurately Perceive Advertising and Campaign Tone?
Does Advertising Aff ect Our Trust in the Political System?
Does Advertising Infl uence Our Political Participation?
Discussion Questions

Chapter 9: The Future of Political Advertising and Its Role in
Our Society
Technological Change
Changes in Regulation
Broader Impacts of Political Advertising
Discussion Questions




This book has its roots in North Hall at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where we were all graduate students and research assistants working with Wisconsin Advertising Project data for Ken Goldstein. As professors now ourselves and directors of the Wesleyan Media Project (which has taken over where the Wisconsin Advertising Project left off ), we spend a lot of time watching, researching, and writing about political advertising. We also frequently talk to students, journalists, and interested citizens about trends in advertising and what we know about its influence. Some of what we present in this book is intuitive to our audiences (for instance, that campaigns are more negative now than they were a decade ago), and some of it is not (for instance, that negative ads play an important role in educating political novices). Fundamentally, we—both individually and as directors of the Wesleyan Media Project—are driven by a desire to provide the public with information about the content and influence of political advertising and how it is changing. This book represents one more way to do just that.

Collectively, we have spent nearly forty- five years analyzing political ads, and we aren’t sick of them yet. In fact, quite the opposite. Despite the thousands of ads we’ve viewed and the millions of airings we’ve analyzed, every election cycle brings new tactics and new trends to examine, and we are always excited to see what pops up as we conduct our real- time analyses. Many of the patterns in advertising are predictable, but campaigns are constantly innovating, and of course, each year brings different candidates, themes, and groups to the table.  In addition, since our days in Wisconsin, a lot has changed in technology, ad targeting, and the campaign finance regulations that govern advertising on television. And those changes have consequences.

Television advertising is still the primary mechanism through which campaigns talk to the majority of citizens, and it remains the most visible manifestation of a campaign season. We don’t see that changing in the immediate future, but we are seeing changes in who is sponsoring ads, and this may have important consequences for citizens. Recent court decisions have created a campaign finance environment that encourages and emboldens interest group activity in elections. This may make it difficult for voters to hold those ad sponsors accountable for what they say: how do you punish a group for the attack ads it airs when that “group” is no more than a bare- bones legal entity?

At the same time, campaigns are getting increasingly sophisticated in how they target advertising, thanks, in part, to their ability to access so much data about each and every one of us. Because of this, future campaigns may see television advertising deployed in ways similar to online ads—directed toward specific individuals with specific characteristics.

Changes in technology have also facilitated this targeting of specific individuals. Campaigns can now more precisely locate the types of voters they want to speak to by turning to national or local cable television—or by moving to online advertising. Increased targeting means fewer “accidental” exposures to advertising, which may actually decrease the amount of knowledge about candidates and issues that advertising imparts to the larger population. It also means that campaigns increasingly may be about “nothing,” as the campaign you experience will be a much different one than the campaign your neighbor experiences.

In spite of these changes, we are convinced that television political advertising is not rapidly approaching extinction. Rather, it will remain an important part—though not the only part—of a campaign’s message strategy.

With a project of this size, we have acquired numerous debts. In a very real sense, this book would not exist without Ken Goldstein. With him as professor, mentor, and friend, we have benefitted enormously from his guidance and are indebted to him for having faith in us to pick up the ad tracking mantle with the creation of the Wesleyan Media Project. We are enormously grateful for the tireless work of our project manager, Laura Baum, the research associates (Katie Searles, Jenny Holland, Laci Hubbard- Mattix, and Orion Yoesle), the coding supervisors (Matt Motta, Justin Pottle, Olivia Horton, Michael Linden, and Eliza Loomis), and the cadre of student researchers who have made our real- time tracking possible, especially Alex Hunt, Emma Lewis, Leo Liu, Marshal Lawler, Ross Petchler, Sam Savitch, David Shor, Rachel Warren, Zach Wulderk, Rachel Ellman, and Michael Yoshida, as well as numerous others. We thank James Fowler and CommIT Technology for the website and online analysis system that facilitates our coding across institutions. We also thank Manolis Kaparakis and Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC), Lauren Rubenstein and Wesleyan’s Office of University Communications along with Heather Tolley- Bauer for PR pinch- hitting in 2012, and Carolyn Kaufman, Rose Pandolfo, and Carol Scully in Wesleyan’s Office of Corporate, Foundation and Government Grants for all of their support. We thank the Center for Responsive Politics for a productive partnership. Funding for the Wesleyan Media Project has come from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Bowdoin College, Washington State University, and Wesleyan University. We are especially grateful to Wesleyan and to several Wesleyan deans and administrators who deserve thanks for their ongoing support of the project, including Don Moon, Joe Bruno, Gary Shaw, Rob Rosenthal, Marc Eisner, Joyce Jacobsen, Ruth Striegel Weissman, Charles Salas, and Michael Roth.

The advisory board for the Wesleyan Media Project also deserves kudos. Thanks to John Geer, Keena Lipsitz, Peter Overby, Charlie Mahtesian, Matea Gold, Daniela Altimari, and Fredreka Schouten for their incredible insights and advice.

We are grateful to Ada Fung, our Westview Press editor, for her guidance and helpful feedback throughout the process. Many thanks to the rest of the Westview team, especially Assistant Managing Editor Krista Anderson, Sales and Marketing Director Renee Legatt, Senior Marketing Manager Victoria Henson, our project editor, Carolyn Sobczak, and our copyeditor, Erin Granville, for their hard work on the book. We would also like to thank the peer reviewers for their detailed and thoughtful feedback on the manuscript, including: Todd Belt (University of Hawai’i at Hilo); Julio Borquez (University of Michigan, Dearborn); Johanna Dunaway (Louisiana State University); Matthew Eshbaugh- Soha (University of North Texas); Mark Glantz (St. Norbert College); Alison Howard (Dominican University of California); Diana Owen (Georgetown University); Laurie Rhodebeck (University of Louisville); John Barry Ryan (Florida State University); Edward Sidlow (Eastern Michigan University); and others who wished to remain anonymous.

We are indebted to our families for their unfailing support through all of the real- time tracking craziness and never- ending manuscript writing. To James, Laura, and Carolyn, words cannot express our gratitude, and to William, Charles, Charlie, Henry, Lorelei, Julianne, and Isaac, who provide daily joy and inspiration, we are forever grateful.

Erika Franklin Fowler Michael M. Franz Travis N. Ridout

Chapter One

Chapter 1: Introduction


Pretend for the moment that it is November 1, 2012, just a few days before Election Day, and you are living in Richmond, Virginia. After a long day, you return to your apartment ready for some relaxation. You turn on some mindless television, specifically, Entertainment Tonight on Channel 12, which is Richmond’s NBC affiliate. At 5:09 p.m., an ad from the Romney campaign comes on. This is followed thirty seconds later by an ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee promoting Senate candidate George Allen. This ad is then followed immediately by an ad sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee promoting Allen’s opponent, Tim Kaine. Thirty seconds later, an ad sponsored by Priorities USA Action, President Obama’s super PAC, appears on your television screen. The celebrity gossip on Entertainment Tonight resumes for a few minutes, but at 5:14 p.m., the political ads return. In this commercial break, you see three ads: one sponsored by Obama’s campaign; one sponsored by the campaign of House member Eric Cantor; and one attacking both Obama and Kaine that’s sponsored by Crossroads GPS, an outside group. During the program’s last commercial break at 5:25 p.m., you see three more political ads. Just thirty minutes of watching television and you’ve already seen five minutes’ worth of political ads. That’s as much, if not more, politics as you would have seen had you watched the local news for half an hour. And imagine if you had watched Channel 12 all day long. You would have seen 258 political ads, for a grand total of two hours and nine minutes’ worth of campaign messages in one day!

Those thirty minutes of television in Richmond, Virginia, help illustrate some important points about political advertising. The first is the ubiquity of televised political advertising close to an election. Richmond is a fairly typical media market, a region in which the population receives similar television and radio stations. Nine hundred political ads for presidential, Senate, or House candidates were aired on Richmond’s five broadcast television stations on November 1, but Richmond was not even in the top ten media markets that day in terms of the number of ads aired. In fact, Richmond was tied for twenty- eight.

Let’s look at the period between January 1, 2012, and Election Day, November 6, and expand our scope from Richmond to all 210 media markets in the United States. Table 1.1 shows the number of ad airings (sometimes called spots) on broadcast television, national network television, and national cable television in three different types of races. In races for the US House, almost 700,000 spots aired across the country, at an estimated cost of $428 million. For the Senate, it was 925,000 spots at a cost of $545 million. Advertising was even more intense in the presidential race, with 1.4 million spots aired at an estimated cost of $950 million. All told, over three million spots were aired in federal races in 2012, at a cost of almost two billion dollars. If you add in spots aired on behalf of candidates for governor, state representative, country coroner, and other elected positions (our data include any ad for elected office that aired on local broadcast stations), the cost of all spots aired in 2012 reaches five billion dollars, accounting for about five million airings.


Second, the Richmond example also illustrates the diversity of advertising sponsors. There were ads paid for by the candidates’ campaigns, the political parties, and a variety of outside groups, including 501c organizations, like Crossroads GPS, and super PACs, like Priorities USA Action. Organizations carrying the 501c designation are defined in the tax code as non- profits, which allows them to raise unlimited amounts of money from individual donors and spend that money on ads, and they are not required to disclose publicly the names of the donors. Super PACs can also raise and spend unlimited amounts, but they must make public all expenditures and donors.

Not all that long ago, the candidates’ official campaigns paid for most of the ads aired on their behalf, but that is no longer the case in many races. To give just one example, in the general election presidential race in 2012, outside groups collectively aired more advertisements supporting Mitt Romney than did the Romney campaign. As a result of this movement toward outside group advertisers, some wonder: do campaigns control their own messages, or are they at the mercy of big- dollar groups with agendas of their own? We will discuss this more in Chapter 9.

Third, the Richmond example looks at ads aired during Entertainment Tonight to highlight the fact that political advertising isn’t shown only during political programs (such as political talks shows or twenty- four- hour news channels), and important information about candidates for office doesn’t appear solely on those shows. On the contrary, campaigns frequently place advertisements on nonpolitical television shows to reach key audiences that are not predisposed to pay much attention to public affairs. Although people have lots of programming choices when they turn on their television sets, they have a hard time avoiding political advertisements no matter what they watch—especially in markets with competitive races—due the sheer volume of ads on the airwaves. Furthermore, campaigns are becoming increasingly sophisticated at targeting advertising messages to the types of audiences they believe are tuning in to particular programs.

Why Study Political Advertising?

Televised political advertising—and that’s what the term political advertising refers to throughout most of this book—is the primary way candidates attempt to reach voters and thus is the most visible part of the campaign for many voters. Certainly there are other ways campaigns try to communicate with voters and the news media, but television advertising continues to comprise the largest share of many campaign budgets. Furthermore, creative content and campaign messages are designed, first and foremost, with television advertising in mind. Thus, understanding political campaigns requires understanding how political advertising is created and deployed, and how developments in technology and the regulatory environment have shaped campaigns’ choices and their ability to speak directly to voters. Of course, all of these decisions and changes have implications for how advertising influences the electorate. For these reasons, any in- depth examination of modern political campaigning must include an understanding of the creation, strategic deployment, and influence of political advertising.


In this book, we will advance four main arguments about political advertising.

  1. The regulatory environment has had a huge impact on the sponsorship and content of political ads.Since 2007, there has been a string of US Supreme Court rulings and rule changes by theFederal Election Commission (FEC), the government agency that regulates the financing of federal campaigns, that have had a major impact on how easy it is for an outside group to become involved in a political advertising campaign. In brief, these changes in the regulatory environment have made it much easier for outside groups to raise money for television advertising and for these groups to expressly endorse a candidate. Any ad sponsor can now urge viewers to “Vote for Barack Obama” or “Vote for Mitt Romney.” In the past, interest groups hoping to be this explicit had to raise their money in highly regulated ways. Chapter 2 will provide the details of these changes, but one important result is the increased presence of big- money donors funding big- money interest groups.
  2. “Big data” has led to increasingly sophisticated ad targeting.In the 2004 campaign, the Republican Party began placing its advertisements on certain television programs in order to get more bang for their buck. They knew, based on massive consumer surveys, which programs Democrats, Republicans, and persuadable voters watched, and they knew whether the audience of each program was likely or unlikely to vote. For example, if you want to speak to Democrats who are almost certain to vote, you should advertise during60 Minutes. The audience for The Simpsons is also heavily Democratic, but it contains a lot of people who are unlikely to vote. If you want to find a lot of Republican voters, then advertising during sports is a good bet, especially college football on Saturday nights or Sunday Night Football.[1] The audiences for programs such as The Big Bang TheoryThe Mentalist, and NCIS all skew Republican, while those for programs such as Saturday Night LiveProject Runway, and Antiques Roadshow are highly Democratic.[2] More recently, campaigns have started using data on people’s television viewing habits obtained from cable set- top boxes. These data on household viewing habits have been matched to databases containing information on millions of consumers, which allows campaigns to reach very specific categories of voters with their messages. Chapter 5 provides much more detail on how this targeting takes place.
  3. Recent technological advances have increased the efficiency of ad distribution.Traditionally, campaigns could place their ads on national and local broadcast television. Local television has the advantage of allowing campaigns to target their messages geographically. But now cable television allows campaigns to reach niche audiences across multiple markets, such as highly knowledgeable Republicans watching Fox News, women watching Lifetime or Hallmark Channel, or parents watching Nick Jr. with their children. Moreover, the recent growth of cable interconnects—groups of local cable television systems that are linked together—allows cable companies to easily insert ads between programs, and those ads can be targeted to certain cities or even neighborhoods. This helps campaigns to spend their money efficiently; they don’t waste money on ads that will be seen by people who live outside the electoral district or who are unlikely to support the candidate. Finally, campaigns now have the capacity to buy online ads that appear only in geographic locations or on websites where they are likely to reach a receptive audience. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss how these technological changes have made advertising more efficient.
  4. All of these developments have influenced the persuasive impact of ads.The increase in dollars going to advertising as a result of the new regulatory environment means that people are seeing more ads than ever before. But more important for gauging the impact of advertising on who wins an election is that, thanks to better ad targeting and distribution, voters are increasingly being exposed to unbalanced message flows. It is no longer the case that for each Republican ad you see, you also see one Democratic ad. If someone decides to anonymously back the Democratic candidate through a ten- million- dollar donation to a group supporting that candidate, then you may see four Democratic ads for each Republican ad. And depending on the television stations and programs you watch and the websites you visit, you may see eight Democratic ads for each Republican ad due to targeting. Increasingly common unbalanced message flows like these make voter persuasion and mobilization more likely. Chapter 7 examines this role of advertising in persuading people to vote in a certain way…

[Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Political Advertising in the United States]

Chapter Two

Chapter 2: The Regulation of Advertising

To conceive, test, produce, and air campaign advertising costs money. Because of this, ad sponsors have to commit a considerable amount of time and energy to raising money. This is the first and most immediate task of any candidate for federal office. This is also true for the party committees that seek to promote and elect their candidates and for the interest groups that align with a candidate or promote their policies and issues during a campaign. The time and energy needed to amass a media budget, however, are not equal for all political advertisers. Fund- raising efforts are guided by campaign finance rules, but candidates face one set of rules while parties must abide by another, slightly different set, and interest groups follow yet another set of rules. Most importantly, these rules have changed and shifted over time. Demonstrating these shifts is one of the primary goals of this chapter.

The rules are only part of the story, however. The way the rules shape political behavior is equally important. In this chapter, we review a number of trends in political advertising that are influenced by campaign finance rules. First, fund- raising and advertising are intricately linked. Because candidates devote so much of their war chests to advertising, they are forced to raise ever more funds to compete with their opponents. Second, party and interest- group ad sponsors pay a lot more for airtime than candidates do, a direct consequence of the way campaign finance rules are written. To the extent that these sponsors become more numerous—an unquestionable reality of recent elections—the cost of campaigns increases. Finally, while parties and candidates must be completely transparent in the disclosure of their contributors, many prominent and high- profile interest groups are not similarly legally required to reveal their donor base. This allows a whole host of political contributors to remain in the shadows.

No single chapter can do justice to the dynamic and varied laws and judicial decisions that pertain to campaign finance. What we outline here, more modestly, are the broad parameters of campaign finance law. Our goal is to demonstrate that the rules matter and that they determine how ad sponsors raise and spend money. In fact, understanding these rules is critical to understanding some of the major trends in political advertising over the last twenty years.


Congress passed a major campaign finance reform bill, the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), in 1971 and revised and expanded it in 1974. These reforms were the first major and comprehensive updates of campaign finance in nearly sixty years.[1] The 1971 reforms were actually more modest than the 1974 changes, which were primarily reactions to the Watergate controversy that engulfed the Nixon presidency between 1972 and 1974. The Supreme Court invalidated some of the 1974 laws in 1976 in a case called Buckley v. Valeo, and Congress responded soon after with further revisions to reflect the court’s mandates. These developments, largely complete by 1976, set up the system as we know it today.


FECA and the revisions made to it throughout the 1970s dictate that candidates are expressly banned from accepting direct contributions from corporations and unions and may accept contributions from only three sources: individual citizens, party committees, and political action committees (PACs).[2] PACs are associations of individuals affiliated with corporations, unions, or trade associations. Members  of PACs—and there are strict rules for what constitutes membership in a PAC—pool their own money into a common pot, which is then distributed to candidates as the leaders of the PAC see fit.[3] Corporate executives and holders of corporate stock can give to a corporation’s PAC from their own paycheck, and labor PACs raise money from the rank and file in the union. PACs are often vilified as “special interests,” but all of the money PACs contribute to candidate coffers comes from the voluntary contributions of PAC members. It is not inaccurate to say that every penny collected by candidates is, at its true source, a personal contribution from citizen bank accounts.

Moreover, contributions are strictly limited in size. FECA capped party and PAC contributions to candidates at five thousand dollars per election—a limit that has remained in effect for forty years—and individual contributions at one thousand dollars per election. In 2002, the limit on individual contributions was doubled to two thousand dollars and indexed to inflation, so that in 2014, an individual could give $2,600 to a candidate per election. This limit applies to us the authors, to you the readers, and to the millionaires and billionaires who might prefer to flex their financial muscle a bit more in electoral politics.

Candidates in contemporary federal elections do not have it easy when it comes to raising the funds needed to run for election or reelection. To be sure, incumbents have a deep network of existing supporters and access to many PACs in the nation’s capital,[4] but one would be hard- pressed to find even one incumbent member of Congress who would argue that the current rules of campaign finance make running for office easy.

It is also vital to consider the limits that the reform efforts of the 1970s placed on candidate spending. Expenditure limits had been a goal of campaign finance reform efforts as far back as the early twentieth century, and in 1971 and 1974 Congress placed restrictions on total candidate expenditures generally and on candidate ad spending specifically. For example, the 1974 law limited House candidates in states with more than one district to spending only seventy thousand dollars in a primary or general election. The 1971 law capped candidates’ media expenditures: federal candidates could spend only 60 percent of their overall budget on television and radio advertising.[5] It is remarkable to think that Congress had the votes in 1971 and 1974 to establish these sorts of hard limits on media spending.

Congressional limits on candidate media spending were hardly in place long enough to matter, though. All but the contribution limits were overturned in Buckley. The justices reasoned that election spending is equivalent to election speech, and so placing any limit on how much candidates can spend to run for office—or to spread their message via television and radio—was a direct limitation on what and how much candidates can say.

This is no small matter. The First Amendment is clear that Congress has no constitutional authority to limit free speech—“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech”—but whether spending money is equivalent to speech is a point of contention among many. Imagine that the court had upheld expenditure limits on campaigns. One could argue that this would not have limited a campaign’s speech, under the presumption that campaign rallies, door- knocking, and volunteer efforts do not require much money. Indeed, most campaigns staff their headquarters with volunteers. No expenditure limit could stop a candidate from coordinating volunteers to devote their energies to the election or from talking with voters.

Still, such an argument is a hard sell to many, in part because money is connected to so much of what candidates do in an election. In Buckley, the court held that direct limits on campaign expenditures had a major effect on how much speech voters would hear from those running for office. The contribution limits, however, were easier to justify and defend. Because contributions to candidates could plausibly create a relationship between donor and candidate that might raise concerns of bribery and corruption, limits on direct contributions to candidates were deemed valid.

Buckley allows expenditure limits only in voluntary public funding systems. This is most important for presidential elections. Congress established in the late 1960s and again in the early 1970s a system of public funding for presidential elections, by which candidates receive a lump sum for the general election in exchange for limiting their  campaign spending to the amount of that grant.[6] The court reasoned that because the system was voluntary, candidates who opted into the system were consenting to limit their speech. Notably, every major presidential candidate between 1976 and 2004 opted into the general election system. After Watergate, presidential candidates wanted to create the impression that moneyed interests were not running the show.[7] But in 2008 Barack Obama opted out, and in 2012 both Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney opted out. Because candidates can raise money today online (which has facilitated fund- raising efforts) and given the considerable expense of running a presidential campaign, it is now almost unthinkable that any major party candidate for president in a future election would voluntarily limit his or her spending in primary and general election campaigns.

There is one campaign finance provision that often goes unnoticed by many observers of politics but that is especially important when it comes to buying political advertising. The 1971 FECA established that for a certain window before Election Day, broadcasters must sell advertising space to candidates at the lowest unit rate. This essentially means that candidates must be charged the least expensive rate that is normally offered by the broadcaster for the requested airtime.[8] This is an incredibly important provision that helps candidates manage, to some extent, the cost of their campaign advertising. To be sure, what the lowest unit rate is is not always clear—the cost of advertising varies across markets and time of day and is determined by individual television stations, and preemptible and non- preemptible ad space have different rates. Still, giving candidates some modest discount on political advertising helps moderate the overall cost of elections—at least to some extent.

Traditional Party Committees

The campaign finance reforms and judicial decisions of the 1970s put political parties at an immediate disadvantage in the electoral arena. The new rules restricted how much parties could contribute to candidates’ campaigns and capped what they could spend in coordination with candidates. This coordination cap was set at ten thousand dollars for House candidates and varied for Senate candidates depending on the state’s voting- age population. All limits were indexed to inflation, so in 2014, the parties could engage in coordinated spending up to $47,200 with a House candidate and up to $349,000 with a Senate candidate from South Carolina (a state with a median population in 2010). Such sums might seem substantial until one considers that the average winning House candidate in 2012 spent $1.6 million and the average winning Senate candidate spent $10.3 million.[9]

From the parties’ point of view, the most damaging element of the reforms of the 1970s was a ban on independent expenditures by parties—that is, additional spending aimed at helping a candidate that is not coordinated with the candidate’s campaign. This ban was affirmed for parties in Buckley even though the court struck down spending limits for candidates, groups, and individuals. Along with the contribution and coordination caps, this significantly handicapped parties. During the two decades following the reforms of the 1970s, parties played second fiddle to candidates in federal elections, and scholars have noted the diminished role of parties in the electorate during that period (and an associated growth in self- identified independent voters)[10] as well as a decline in their role in determining presidential nominees.[11]

A sea change began in the 1990s, though. In 1996, the Supreme Court in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee et al. v. Federal Election Commission freed the parties to make unlimited independent expenditures on behalf of candidates. The court ruled that the prohibition of such expenditures was an infringement on the parties’ First Amendment rights. The court’s reasoning was that, because the expenditures were made without the candidate’s knowledge, they should not be considered direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns. This rationale made the treatment of party spending consistent with the court’s treatment of PAC and individual spending in Buckley.

A more significant development in the 1990s was that the parties started to exploit a loophole in campaign finance laws that allowed them to raise and spend soft money to help federal candidates. Soft money is raised outside the regulated system of federal campaign finance laws from otherwise prohibited sources, such as corporations and unions. Hard money, in contrast, is collected within the limits prescribed by campaign finance laws and used directly for federal elections. Why were parties able to collect soft money? Such funds had been legal for parties to use since the 1980s, after they argued to the FEC that not all their expenditures were related to federal campaigns; some were intended to help state and local candidates and to more generally promote the party’s image. Imagine a Republican Party ad or brochure touting small government and personal responsibility: the party argued that such efforts were outside the intended scope of campaign finance laws.

The soft money allowance was not much of an issue in the 1980s, when parties tended to use soft money for these party- building purposes. But during the mid- 1990s, the federal courts ruled that interest groups, and by extension parties, could use unregulated funds to pay for ads that both promoted issues and featured federal candidates.[12] If an ad from an interest group or party included a set of particular words or phrases, then the ad was considered express advocacy and thus subject to stringent funding guidelines. These magic words, first listed in a footnote of the Buckley decision, were: “vote for,” “elect,” “support,” “cast your ballot for,” “Smith for Congress,” “vote against,” “defeat,” and “reject.” But absent them, the ad was considered issue education or issue advocacy, and thus could be paid for with soft money. Suddenly parties saw an opening to pay for ads and brochures that touted their core values but that also featured a candidate and promoted his or her virtues (or that warned more broadly of the vices of the opposing party).

Imagine a Democratic Party ad that tells voters about a whole host of legislative accomplishments by an incumbent senator or president. The ad then finishes by urging voters to “Vote for [the candidate] in November.” This ad is clearly election- related, as evidenced by the magic phrase “vote for,” and consequently it must be funded by the party’s hard money account. Now imagine the same ad but with an ending that urges viewers to “contact [the candidate] and thank him for his efforts.” Both ads, in this example, air on the same day at the same time in the same media market, but on separate stations. The absence of the “vote for” tagline in the second ad, however, means it is a soft money ad that can be funded with huge corporate or union checks.

Parties increased their soft money outlays significantly in the 1990s. For example, the parties’ congressional campaign committees (such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Republican National Senatorial Committee) increased their soft money spending from eighty million dollars in 1996 to just under three hundred million dollars in 2002. The impetus for these increased electoral efforts was not just the court cases that seemed to permit them. It was also the growing polarization between Democrats and Republicans and the razor- thin margins that determined control of Congress, not to mention the contentious and tight 2000 presidential election. Parties needed every dollar they could find to fight for control in Washington, DC.[13]

Consequently, the parties became incredibly adept at convincing interest groups and individuals to give soft money donations. A majority of soft money came from interest groups, including corporations and unions; in fact, corporate donations account for about 40 percent of all soft money that parties raised between 1992 and 2002.[14] Thus, by exploiting soft money as an avenue for influence, party organizations went from being marginalized as political actors in the 1970s and 1980s to being a focal point of federal campaigns.[15]

This is clear when we look at party advertising in the 2000 election cycle, a year during which control of the House and Senate were up for grabs and the presidential race was tight. Parties sponsored 65 percent of all the general election television ads in the presidential race and about one in every four House and Senate ads. The number for the presidential race is particularly high because both Gore and Bush were limited (voluntarily) to the public funding grant. This capped each campaign’s spending at $67.5 million, and both candidates looked to the parties’ soft money accounts for a significant boost and competitive advantage.

The prevalence of soft money in this period motivated Congress to majorly overhaul campaign finance law in 2002. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) outlawed the parties’ use of soft money and forced the parties to use only regulated hard money for any and all expenditures. Because soft money was relatively easy to raise—it could come in any increment and often arrived in million dollar checks—the ban on soft money was expected to weaken the influence of political parties.[16]

In some ways, however, the law merely moved the parties’ fundraising into the world of hard money. They were forced to become more aggressive in courting small- donor checks, and they proved up to the task. See, for example, the totals reported in Table 2.1, which shows the contributions received by the major party committees in the six elections before and after the passage of BCRA. In the 2004 presidential cycle, parties increased their hard money totals by 129 percent over the 2000 election. In 2006, they boosted their hard money haul by about 82 percent over the previous midterm election in 2002. The transition to hard money–only donations was not easy, but the parties proved remarkably resilient in the face of attempts to undermine their organizational and electoral influence. These fund- raising changes also corresponded to new initiatives in both parties to build stronger state- level parties. Most notably, the Democratic Party’s fifty- state strategy, implemented by party chair Howard Dean in 2005 and 2006 to make the party strong nationwide, was paid for with hard money.[17]

All told, the parties have become powerful organizations capable of influencing federal elections in ways unforeseen by reformers of the 1970s. Recent developments appear to have shifted additional powers back to parties. The Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014) overturned one of the more arcane provisions of FECA, that an individual donor’s hard money contribution had to fall under the maximum allowed when totaled across all candidates and parties. The court overturned this provision, arguing that it served no compelling governmental interest, which meant that donors could give the hard money maximum to as many candidates as were running. This was expected to help party committees, which could help facilitate that giving. In late 2014, parties got an additional boost when, as part of its bill to keep the government open, Congress passed minor adjustments to campaign finance laws that raised the hard money limits on parties for individual donors. Those additional funds could not be used for electoral purposes, but they still increased the hard money totals that parties could accumulate.


Interest Groups

Interest groups have always been a bigger concern than parties for advocates of campaign finance reform. Indeed, a comprehensive review of the history of campaign finance reform reveals that corporations (and their wealthy executives) and unions were the focus of most major campaign finance reform efforts in the twentieth century. Laws passed in 1907 (banning corporate contributions) and 1947 (banning union contributions) were explicitly focused on interest groups.

Interest- group electioneering after FECA and Buckley, which overturned FECA’s limits on independent expenditures by interest groups but preserved the ban on candidate and party contributions by corporations and unions, can be grouped into three phases. In the first phase, between 1976 and the mid- 1990s, most interest groups, if they were interested in electoral politics, formed PACs and contributed modest sums to candidates. Some groups aired ads that advocated for or against federal candidates, but such efforts paled in comparison to the electioneering done by candidates.[18]

Things started to change in the mid- 1990s, the second phase. The polarization between Democrats and Republicans then motivated many interest groups to invest more in elections. While PACs can spend unlimited amounts to air ads, those funds are subject to strict donor contribution limits, so the soft money loopholes that parties exploited were similarly exploited by many interest groups so they could more easily raise large sums of money. By avoiding “magic words,” groups produced ads that were considered issue advocacy and therefore protected speech that posed, in the eyes of the federal courts, no real threat of corruption.

Congress tried to clamp down on these developments in much the same way that it did with its ban on the parties’ use of soft money. BCRA mandated that radio and television ads from interest groups that mentioned or pictured federal candidates and aired close to elections had to be paid for through PAC accounts. But the limits of these new rules were immediately tested by outside groups, who continued to devise ways around the new reforms. For example, the BCRA provisions outlined above seemed to apply directly to groups funded by corporations and unions. But what about issue advocacy groups, often referred to as “527s” in reference to the applicable section of the tax code, that were funded solely by individual contributions, albeit large ones? This question gained prominence in 2004 when one such group, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, aggressively attacked the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry. Swift Boat Veterans claimed that it wasn’t a PAC and therefore was not subject to the new BCRA rules.

The search for loopholes ended—and the third phase began—when the BCRA reforms in this area were finally overturned in one of the most significant Supreme Court cases in recent memory. In Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010), five of the nine justices argued that restrictions on interest- group electioneering, including the ban on corporations and unions using general treasury funds for ads that used the magic words, were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The case concerned the definition of a political ad. Citizens United, an interest group funded in part by corporate donors, wanted to pay to have a critical documentary they made about Hillary Clinton distributed as video- on- demand on cable television for free. The question of the case could have been very narrowly defined as whether documentary- length videos constitute political ads (to which the justices could have said no, resolving the case without much fanfare), but the justices expanded the scope of the case to overturn all restrictions on interest- group electioneering. What remained were limits on direct contributions to candidates and parties.

Thus, in order to comply with the court’s ruling in Citizens United, the Federal Election Commission permitted the creation of the super PAC, a new type of group that could explicitly advocate for and against candidates and could raise unlimited funds but could not contribute to a candidate’s campaign. Given their flexibility, super PACs proved very popular, but there was one small drawback: the FEC required that they report their donors. But what if you are a billionaire who wants to help a candidate to the tune of a few million dollars, but you don’t want journalists or the public to know? In that case, you give money to a group organized as a nonprofit: a 501c group. Such groups, also known as dark money groups, are allowed to collect unlimited amounts and to avoid all public disclosure of their donors. 501c groups were not invented for campaign financing purposes—they have long existed as tax classifications (for example, c4s are social welfare groups, c5s are labor unions, c6s are business groups)—but they have proved incredibly important to outside groups looking for a way to influence elections without having to itemize donations with the FEC. The only catch is that their political activities cannot be their primary purpose.

The rise of dark money groups has spawned much debate about whether additional rules concerning the disclosure of donors are necessary. Disclosure has long been seen as a public good in campaign finance. Indeed, some of the earliest campaign finance laws in the twentieth century were focused on disclosure. The 1910 Publicity Act and the 1925 Federal Corrupt Practices Act, in particular, mandated that candidates report their contributions and expenditures to the federal government. The fact that wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions can now spend millions of dollars to influence a race by funneling it through a dark money group—without the public knowing the source of that money—is troubling to many observers.

In sum, the Citizens United decision significantly empowered interest groups, allowing them to raise and spend unlimited amounts. The decision did not create dark money groups, but it did make channeling money through such groups, as a way to hide the names of donors, much more attractive. This development is considered by many to be as troubling as any other recent change in campaign finance and is one we will examine in more depth later in this chapter.


The rules of campaign finance have many implications for the study of political advertising. For example, changes in the rules have resulted in changes in who is sponsoring the bulk of political advertising. During the period of party soft money, party- sponsored ad spending exceeded spending by outside groups. Since Citizens United, super PAC and 501c spending have surpassed party spending. We will document more completely these types of changes in ad sponsorship in Chapter 3.

There are many other trends in ad spending that can be tied directly to the rules of campaign finance. In the remainder of this chapter, we highlight three. The first centers on federal candidates and the amount of money they devote to airing ads. Much of the discussion of campaign finance focuses on parties and interest groups—and rightly so, given that most changes in the last generation have been about those political actors. But candidates are embedded in a campaign finance environment in which there are tight restrictions on how they can raise money. How much of what candidates raise goes to fund television, radio, and Internet advertising? The second and third trends discussed in this section focus on the spending of parties and groups. How much do sponsors pay to air their messages, and how do changes in ad sponsorship affect the cost of campaigns? What kinds of interest groups sponsor ads, and what concerns have been raised about transparency and tracking the sources of campaign dollars?

Trend 1: The Cost of Media for Candidates

One goal of campaign finance reform in the early 1970s was to limit how much candidates could spend on television advertising. As noted earlier, one very specific provision of the 1971 campaign finance reform law limited the percentage of a candidate’s budget that could be spent on media. That law was overturned by the justices in Buckley, which has ended up forcing candidates into ads arms races. Consequently, today’s candidates often complain about the challenge of raising enough money to air ads. It is not uncommon to hear stories of members of Congress leaving their congressional offices, walking across the street to party headquarters (since they are prohibited from using their government offices and phones for fund- raising), and spending six to eight hours “dialing for dollars,” begging potential donors for campaign contributions. This is partly why the rules of campaign finance are so important for campaign advertising.[19]

How much do candidates actually spend on ads and media, though? This is not easy to get a handle on. Candidates send quarterly itemized reports on spending to the Federal Election Commission, but there is no standard way to categorize expenditures. For example, one candidate might report ad spending as “media” while another might classify it as “persuasion efforts.” Another might simply label it “campaigning.” Gary Jacobson, in his authoritative book on congressional elections, asserts that, based on a study of FEC- reported disbursements in the early 1990s, mass media advertising “absorbs about 45 percent of a typical campaign budget.” [20] However, he does not specify whether  that refers to all congressional races or just competitive ones. A report from media consultants Borrell Associates in early 2012 projects that $9.8 billion would be spent on all forms of media in local, state, and federal elections that year, and 57 percent of that total—$5.6 billion—would be spent on broadcast television specifically.[21]

Two sources of data for Senate candidates’ expenditures in 2012 and 2014 are useful for quantifying the percentage of money spent on media and advertising. The first, from the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), is the estimated money spent on buying local broadcast ads in each election year. The totals in this database refer only to the estimated cost of buying ads on local television stations; they exclude ad costs for local cable, radio, print, and the Internet, as well as the costs of producing the ad and hiring consultants to provide advice on how to make and distribute the ad. The second source of data is the itemized FEC disbursement reports for congressional candidates. Here, we had to apply some care in categorizing expenditures before analyzing the data.[22] We didn’t include the reported cost of direct mail, printing costs, or postage in the media costs we examined. Instead, we looked at the cost of ads on broadcast and digital cable, radio, the Internet, and billboards, as well as reported production costs, media consulting costs, and expenditures labeled more broadly as “media.” Choosing to include any expenditure that the candidate indicated as advertising or media- related allowed us to see more clearly how much money a candidate commits to the task of designing, producing, filming, and airing messages to the voting public.

Figure 2.1 shows media costs as a percentage of Senate candidate budgets in 2012 and 2014. The average across all major party candidates was 43 percent. Some candidates reported lower expenditures than that, but many far exceeded it. For example, Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel of Ohio reported spending nearly $19 million total in 2012; the FEC data shows that over $12 million of that is media expenditures, about two- thirds of his total reported spending. The WMP data estimate that his campaign spent just over $7 million to buy ads on local broadcast television stations, which is 38 percent of  his total campaign spending. Indeed, based on the WMP estimates, Senate candidates on average spent 32 percent of their total campaign budgets just to buy space on local broadcast television.

Figure 2.1: Media Spending by Candidates as Percentage of Total Budget

Fowler Figure 2.1

Each bar represents a particular candidate. Source: Raw data from the Federal Election Commission

Advertising and media spending by the Obama and Romney campaigns in 2012 provides a nice point of comparison for the Senate figures. Obama reported spending $683 million total in 2012, and Romney reported spending $433 million. According to the WMP data, Obama spent $310 million on local broadcast or national cable television advertising, which was 45 percent of his total spending. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) calculated that Obama spent $483 million in total media- related costs, or 71 percent of his reported expenditures. The WMP data show Romney spent $141 million on local broadcast ads (excluding expenditures totaling $24 million that were  shared with the Republican National Committee), which amounted to 33 percent of his total campaign spending. Romney spent $240 million in media- related costs, according to the CRP, which is 55 percent of his campaign’s total spending.

That the Obama campaign committed just over 70 percent of its sizable budget to media and television airtime speaks to its importance in presidential elections. But advertising is an important share of total campaign expenditures even in lower- profile House races. House candidates are harder to compare in this regard because some districts are in dense urban markets where television advertising is not efficient because it reaches many voters who live outside the district. Still, if we restrict the analysis to the nearly 750 candidates in 2012 and 2014 who itemized at least one million dollars in expenditures, the average House campaign reported spending 33 percent of its total campaign budget on media- related activities.

Ultimately, then, media—and television political advertising specifically—makes up a sizeable chunk of a campaign’s budget. This is unlikely to change at any point in the near future. Advertising is especially important in the United States because politicians represent so many people. The average House district now has over seven hundred thousand people,[23] which is way too many for any one candidate to meet face to face. And of course, senators, governors, and presidents represent many more than seven hundred thousand people. On top of this, because there are no requirements that broadcasters give candidates or parties free airtime, something that exists in many countries, campaigns must rely on paid advertising.

Trend 2: The Cost of an Ad for Parties and Interest Groups

Candidates’ ad spending tells only part of the story. It’s true that they spend a lot of money on campaign ads, but candidates also benefit from the lowest unit rate. Party and interest groups do not similarly benefit from this rule, so when there is substantial competition for airtime, they pay hefty sums—as much as the market will bear. Indeed, the market for airtime in some of the most competitive House and Senate races is a major boon to the bottom lines of broadcast television stations.

How much sponsors pay for advertising is sometimes difficult to determine, even in the age of “big data.” One possible source of information is local broadcast stations, which are required by law to keep a file available to the public that contains contracts between political ad sponsors and the station. Before 2012 these files were largely stored as hard copies at the television stations. Citizens, scholars, and political opponents could only search the files by hand, station by station, hard copy by hard copy. Assembling a comprehensive database of ad costs across stations and markets was nearly impossible.

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency that regulates broadcast media, including television and radio, mandated that broadcast stations in the fifty largest media markets upload their public files to the FCC website. In 2014, the FCC expanded the rule to cover all stations in the nation’s 210 media markets. These mandates are a major advance for scholarship, but there still is a significant challenge in standardizing the data. Stations need only upload the scanned versions of the contracts, and there is no uniform data- reporting standard. Still, the 2014 data on the FCC website (posted online for ad contracts beginning on or after July 1) represent the universe of data on broadcast ad costs.

Another source of spending information is the WMP data, which was used in the previous section to calculate ad costs for candidates, and similar data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project (a predecessor to the WMP). These data are informed by a rigorous attempt to capture the likely cost of political ads in media markets of different sizes and population density. But they may not reflect the actual amounts paid by ad sponsors, especially when parties and interest groups end up in bidding wars over premium ad space. Only the ad buy contracts, which list the agreed- on price, can show the true costs. Thus, we still faced the challenge of collecting and standardizing the FCC data. To address this, we partnered with Patrick Ruffini, who runs Echelon Insights, a political research and intelligence firm. His company devoted considerable efforts to collecting each contract from the FCC and entering its data into a spreadsheet, taking care to include amended or changed terms. The resulting set of data allows us to document the price- per- spot differences among sponsors in competitive markets.

The raw data are extensive. For example, it includes all sponsors of ads in local, state, and federal races, each week they advertised, and each television station on which they bought ad space. Figure 2.2 shows the median price per spot across all markets in the twenty weeks before the election for each type of sponsor—candidates, parties, and interest groups.[24] For candidates in House and Senate races, the median cost per ad is about two hundred dollars between July 1 and Election Day, with just slight increases as the campaign comes to a close. Of course, these data hide considerable diversity in ad costs introduced by variations in market size, the size of the audience for a particular program, and the desirability of a program’s audience for advertisers. Ad costs can also depend on whether candidates reserve ad spots in advance—a sort of Sam’s Club approach that offers discounts for buying in bulk—or buy ads week to week. Still, the relative stability of prices (as demonstrated in the graph) thanks to the “lowest unit rate” rule is important for candidates. Knowing ad prices are unlikely to spike astronomically for them in the final days helps them better establish fund- raising goals throughout the campaign, plan for the rough costs of advertising at the end of a campaign, and commit to a last- minute deluge of ads if needed in a tight race.

There is far less predictability for groups and party committees. For these sponsors, ad costs spike as Election Day draws near. In House races, the median cost across markets more than triples for party committees and interest groups; it doubles for these same sponsors in Senate races. One reason for such dramatic changes is the absence of the “lowest unit rate” rule for outside groups and party committees. A super PAC advocating for a candidate close to the election faces the daunting challenge of paying for airtime that is heavily desired by competing groups and party committees. If there are a number of advertisers that want ad space during the local news the night before the election, broadcast stations are in the driver’s seat. They can demand whatever they think super PACs and party committees can afford to pay. Thus, the presence of outside money in federal elections has had the effect of increasing the overall cost of campaigns. Outside groups pay more for ads, and to the extent that the entrepreneurs in those groups are seeking a significant stake in the conduct and content of political campaigns, they are “overpaying”—certainly compared to their candidate allies.

Figure 2.2: Ad Costs by Sponsor and Week in House and Senate Races

Fowler Figure 2.2

Source: Patrick Ruffini, Echelon Insights

The skyrocketing of ad prices post–Citizens United could change ad- buying strategies in elections to come. As competition for airtime increases and the gap between what candidates pay for ads and what groups pay rises even more, donors may begin to direct more of their dollars to candidates. Another possibility is that it may lead to a division of labor in which groups advertise more prior to the “lowest unit rate” window and then move their resources to online or direct contact activities (for example, “get out the vote” efforts) as Election Day nears. Thus, the “lowest unit rate” provision may help to mitigate recent changes in campaign finance law that have benefitted groups.

Trend 3: Dark Money and Disclosure

One final trend concerns the transparency surrounding sponsors of political ads. Candidates and party committees are completely transparent in that they submit regular reports to the Federal Election Commission detailing their contributions and expenditures. Most interest groups that are involved in elections also submit reports to the FEC, but these reports are oft en less comprehensive.

PACs that make contributions directly to candidates report the source of their funds and the contributions they make to candidates to the FEC, so transparency is less of a concern for these groups. But two types of groups that produce uncoordinated political ads advocating for issue positions and/or attacking candidates have more gaps in disclosure. The first type is super PACs, which actually must report contributions and expenditures but can accept contributions of unlimited size from groups that are not fully transparent. The second type is 501c nonprofits. Most of the 501c organizations active in politics are organized as 501c4s. Their principal goal is to advance social welfare, but they are permitted to do some electioneering so long as it is not their primary purpose. This “primary purpose” standard—and the question of what constitutes electioneering—has created an opportunity for these types of organizations to invest in electoral politics with candidate ads. A 501c4 organization does not need to publicly disclose donors.

How much interest- group advertising is funded by organizations that disclose their donors? To find out, let’s look at groups that sponsored ads in the congressional elections in 2012 and 2014 and in the presidential election of 2012. Each group can be categorized into one of three types: (1) fully transparent groups, such as super PACs; (2) dark money groups that do not disclose any donors; and (3) partial- disclosure groups. The last category consists of groups that take on multiple legal forms—one group could be both a super PAC and a 501c4—and groups that voluntarily disclose some of their donors even if they are not required to do so by law.

Figure 2.3 shows the degree of disclosure by the race type and party (full and partial disclosure groups are combined here). Two points stand out. First, dark money ads, defined here as those that do not disclose any donors, are not the majority of interest- group- sponsored ads. A great percentage of the ads aired on behalf of Democratic candidates in 2012 and 2014 were sponsored by groups who report some or all of their contributions to the Federal Election Commission. Second, pro-Republican groups were more dependent on dark money than were Democrats in both 2012 and 2014. In recent years, Democrats have tended to rely on super PACs such as Priorities USA (pro- Obama), House Majority PAC, and Majority PAC. These super PACs have operated essentially as soft money extensions of the party committees. Republicans, in contrast, have relied more heavily on 501c4 organizations, such as Crossroads GPS and the US Chamber of Commerce, and tea party groups such as American Action Network.

That the source of most ad money is disclosed does not imply that concerns about lack of disclosure are misplaced. In fact, dark money may grow in future elections, and even fully transparent super PACs accept huge checks from sources that are not as transparent. Perhaps the best example of this is the case of comedian Stephen Colbert’s super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which he established with the help of election lawyer Trevor Potter. Colbert discussed this on his show, The Colbert Report, as part of a comic skit to demonstrate one effect of the Citizens United decision. To show how super PACs are not as transparent as we might like, Colbert set up a parallel 501c4, asked viewers to donate to the nonprofit, and then contributed those sums to the super PAC.

Colbert’s perfectly legal actions brought home to American voters how easy it is to funnel vast sums into a campaign for office without anyone knowing where the money came from. But why should the voting public know who is funding the campaign messages that they receive? First, when people do not know who is backing an ad, they have no basis for evaluating the ad’s arguments. In deciding whether to believe a claim that a member of Congress is a champion of the environment, it helps to know whether the money that paid for the ad came from an executive at Exxon or thousands of small donors pooling their resources. Second, knowing who paid for an ad can help journalists root out corruption. It is much easier to cry foul when a member of Congress introduces a bill favorable to the oil industry if we know that an Exxon executive spent three million dollars on ads supporting that person in the previous election.

Figure 2.3: Advertising Disclosure by Race and Party 

Fowler Figure 2.3

Source: Wesleyan Media Project and the Center for Responsive Politics


The source of money that pays for campaign ads is not easy to track, and rules governing the raising and reporting of that money are difficult to comprehend. The rules are complex—and ever- changing—because of new regulations and court decisions. For candidates, the rules have largely been stable, but the demand to air ads and compete with parties and interest groups for airtime means that fund-raising within contribution and coordination limits puts significant pressure on candidates.

On the other hand, candidates get relatively decent rates on their airtime, but this has created a vigorous market for preferred ad space among the party committees and a cadre of outside groups. As the rules have changed to enhance the role of parties and groups in political advertising, especially with fewer restrictions on fund- raising and disclosure for interest groups, the cost of competitive campaigns has risen above what it would be if candidates were the dominant political spenders.

There is nothing inherently wrong with campaigns costing a lot of money; “cheap” campaigns are perhaps not a desirable goal in a democracy. In fact, a lot of political science research demonstrates that campaigning has positive effects on what citizens know about politics and their ability to make informed vote choices. Presumably, then, more abundant interest- group advertising can contribute relevant information that voters can use in making choices between candidates. What’s more important than the cost of advertising is the disclosure of where ad money originates. Voters should be able to investigate the groups who are trying to lobby them for their votes, and they should be able to weigh the messages they see with the full knowledge of who is financially backing those messages.

Because so much of what campaigns, parties, and groups raise is devoted to producing and purchasing television advertising, this chapter’s discussion of the rules that govern the financing of American elections is an important antecedent to the rest of the book. In the next chapter, we take advantage of the rich data available on political advertising volume to look at important changes in ad content over time.


Chapter 1 ⋅ Notes:

[1] National Media, 2010 Media Buying Trends: Part 2, http://www.natmedia.com/2012/02/03/2010-media-buying-trends-primetime-tv-part-2/.

[2] James Hibberd, “Republicans vs. Democrats Favorite TV Shows Revealed,” EW.com, November 3, 2014, http://www.ew.com/article/2014/11/03/republican-democrats -favorite -tv -shows.

Chapter 2 ⋅ Notes:

[1] There were reforms along the way, of course, most notably the Taft – Hartley Act in 1947, which banned unions from contributing to candidates and making pro- candidate expenditures. That was an important legislative change, but most historians of campaign finance see two comprehensive reform cycles in the twentieth century: the set of rules established with the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 and the 1971/1974 FECA reforms. See Robert Mutch, Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] Candidates may also use personal funds to finance their campaigns, without limits.

[3] Some PACs are unaffiliated with a sponsoring organization; these are most commonly ideological groups pushing for certain social reforms. These unconnected PACs can accept contributions from any American citizen.

[4] See Mark Rozell, Clyde Wilcox, and Michael Franz, “Interest Groups and Candidates,” chap. 3 in Interest Groups in American Campaigns: The New Face of Electioneering, 3rd ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) Chapter 3.

[5] Anthony Corrado, “Money and Politics: A History of Campaign Finance Law,” in The New Campaign Finance Sourcebook, ed. Anthony Corrado, Thomas Mann, Daniel Ortiz, and Trevor Potter (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 21, 23.

[6] There is also a public funding system for presidential nominations, in which candidates agree to limit spending in primary states in exchange for federal matching of private contributions. The FECA of 1974 established this primary and general election system, but its genesis is also in the Presidential Campaign Fund Act of 1966 and the Revenue Act of 1971.

[7] There were limits to this display, however. As soft money for parties (see page 000) exploded, candidates like Al Gore and George Bush in 2000 could easily accept the public funding—and claim they were following campaign finance laws that limited candidate spending—while relying on the extensive party efforts organized on their behalf.

[8] This provision only applies in the forty- five days before a primary election and in the sixty days before a general election.

[9] Campaign Finance Institute, Cost of Winning a Seat, accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.cfinst.org/federal/congress.aspx.

[10] Martin Wattenberg, The Decline of American Political Parties, 1952–1994 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). See also Larry Bartels, “Partisanship and Voting Behavior, 1952–1996,” American Journal of Political Science 44, no. 1 (1996): 35–50.

[11] Nelson Polsby, Consequences of Party Reform (New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1983); Graham Wilson, Interest Groups in the United States (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

[12] See, for example, FEC v. Christian Action Network (1997) and Maine Right to Life Committee v. FEC (1996).

[13] Michael M. Franz, Choices and Changes: Interest Groups in the Electoral Process (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007).

[14] This is based on our own analysis of soft money donations between 1992 and 2002.

[15] The national parties worked on increasing their organizational capacity throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. See Leon Epstein, Political Parties in the American Mold (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 208–225. It was this increased capacity that undoubtedly helped the parties take advantage of the soft money opportunity in the 1990s and early 2000s.

[16] Ray La Raja, Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[17] Ari Berman, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010).

[18] Rozell, Wilcox, and Franz, Interest Groups in American Campaigns.

[19] See Stephen Ansolabehere, Alan Gerber, and James Snyder, “Does TV Advertising Explain the Rise of Campaign Spending? A Study of Campaign Spending and Broadcast Advertising Prices in US House Elections in the 1990s and 1970s” (working paper, Harvard University, 2001). The authors argue that the cost of broadcast advertising is not the primary culprit in the rising costs of campaigns. They find evidence that in high- cost media markets, candidates often forgo advertising in favor of comparatively cheaper voter outreach, such as direct mail. Their study examines candidates in the 1970s and 1990s, and presumably their point is still relevant in an era of less- pricey digital media.

[20] Gary Jacobson, The Politics of Congressional Elections, 8th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2013), 99.

[21] Applying this figure to a total cost of elections up and down the ballot is quite difficult, since there is no central database that collects the costs of local and statewide elections. However, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that candidates in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections spent about $4.7 billion total. (They arrived at this figure by subtracting $1.3 billion, the amount they reported was spent by parties and outside groups, from $6 billion, which they reported was the total cost of the 2012 elections.) The Borrell report estimates candidate ad spending in 2012 would be $2.3 billion (inclusive of all media), which is 49 percent of the above total. This is not far off the figure reported by Jacobson in his book for a “typical” campaign.

[22] Notably, we replicated the Center for Responsive Politics’ coding of the data. They report on their webpage only the media costs of winning Senate candidates. As to what the FEC files capture, the commission offers the following expenditure- reporting guidelines: “Campaign committees are required to disclose all specific disbursements that are contributions to other federal candidates or parties or other committees as well as all loan repayments. For other spending (normal operating expenses, for example, or contributions to state or local candidates), specific disbursements must be disclosed when the amount paid to any one vendor exceeds $200 in an election cycle.” See Federal Election Commission, Campaign Guide for Congressional Candidates and Committees, June 2014, http://www.fec.gov/pdf /candgui .pdf.

[23] Kristin D. Burnett, Congressional Apportionment, C2010BR- 08, US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau (November 2011), https:// www .census .gov /prod /cen2010 /briefs /c2010br-08 .pdf .[24] For this figure, coordinated ads (paid for by a party committee and a candidate) are combined with candidate ads, since those spots also qualify for the lowest unit rate.


This text is excerpted from  Political Advertising in the United States, First Edition by Erika Franklin Fowler, Michael M. Franz, and Travis N. Ridout. 

Copyright © 2016 by WESTVIEW PRESS

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