Washington Matters


A Record Year for Political Ad Spending

Kenneth R. Bazinet

Political campaigns have poured over a billion dollars into local television stations. With three weeks to go until Election Day, you ain't seen nothin' yet.



Already had your fill of political ads for the year? Too bad. At least 1 million more spots from campaign committees, super PACS and ballot issue advocates will be aired on television between now and Election Day.

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That’s more than 43,000 spots a day -- and most of them will be negative attack ads. There won’t be much respite from political ads on the Internet or radio, either. Only the print medium -- where all kinds of advertising is eroding -- will see fewer political ads in the next few weeks.

Two changes are responsible for the surge: the Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate and union expenditures, and the explosion of states allowing early voting. With ballots already being cast in nearly three dozen states, the wave of political ads usually reserved for the final two weeks of the campaign is already going full-tilt on the airwaves.

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You might think that with so much money being poured into television advertising, Mitt Romney’s super-rich conservative super PACs would give him a huge advantage over President Obama. But that’s not so. House, Senate and presidential candidates are allowed to purchase ad time at the lowest unit rate under federal law. But the super PACS do not get that discount. So while the Republicans clearly have a fund-raising edge thanks to the cash-flush super PACS, Obama’s smaller war chest goes further because the funds come from his campaign directly. Since in many markets he can buy two or three ads for each one the super PACS air, the playing field is closer to level.

Of course, that also means that some local stations airing ads at the lowest rate available aren’t raking in as much as they could be if premium-paying sponsors were footing the bill. But fear not: They’re crying all the way to the bank.

The rapid-fire ad buys this election cycle are yielding a historic cash haul, especially for local television stations. Considered by far the most efficient and affordable political ad medium, TV stations will take in a whopping $1.45 billion between now and Nov. 6. And that’s on top of the $1.2 billion they’ve already grossed from local, state and federal races, as well as ballot questions.

Factor in another $400 million being spent on local cable TV buys and it amounts to a historic $3.05 billion for all local markets, broadcast and cable. It adds up to a total of 3.6 million political ads airing this entire election cycle.

New high-water marks are being set across the board in the television ad business. Ads on Spanish-language stations, for example, are off the charts this year. The presidential campaigns alone are running eight times the number of spots that the Obama and McCain campaigns aired in 2008, reports the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors political ad buys. Not surprisingly, Obama’s campaign is outspending Romney 2-to-1 on Spanish-language television.

There’s every reason to believe that the trend will speed up in future election years, and it’s likely to have some long lasting consequences. Because ad buys are becoming so important so early in the campaign cycle, local candidates who can’t afford to spend big bucks early on will suffer.

“The early voting means down-ballot candidates are going to have to change the way they do fund-raising,” says Jack Poor, vice president for strategic planning at the Television Bureau of Advertising. “They’ll need to raise a lot more money to compete.”

This year, that hasn’t been the case, though. Because the accelerated campaign cycle caught all local candidates by surprise, none had much of a leg up on others. In upcoming election cycles, they’re likely to find they are in the same kind of advertising dogfight on the state level as national candidates are, and they’ll need record amounts of campaign cash to compete.



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