Political Advertising Spending, Volume Reaching Record High, Says Study

Story posted September 29, 2010

Political advertising spending and volume is way up in Congressional elections compared to the 2008 races, according to a report just released by the Wesleyan Media Project.

As of Sept. 15, $220 million had been spent this year, as compared to $135 million at this same date during the presidential election cycle.

franzMichael Franz

Overall advertising volume also has increased, driven primarily by a jump in candidate and interest group airings, says Bowdoin Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz, one of the lead researchers on the project.

"This election season is expected to break advertising records," notes Franz, adding, "This is not surprising because of the competitive political cycle. The Republicans are fighting hard for control of Congress and this is driving up spending and volume on both sides."

The Wesleyan Media Project provides real-time, non-partisan public information on the content and targeting of advertising in federal election campaigns across the country—including the date, time, market, station and program on which each ad aired.

Among key findings of the early analysis:

  • House and Senate advertising is up 20 percent and 79 percent, respectively, in total airings. The increase in spending is driven primarily by a surge in spending on U.S. Senate seats, which more than doubled compared to 2008.

  • The increase in overall House and Senate advertising volume is being driven primarily by large increases in volume of candidate and interest group airings.

  • Party spending is down substantially, especially in U.S. Senate races, where 2010 figures are 61 percent lower than at this same time two years ago.

  • Over $100 million has been spent by interest groups in key federal and gubernatorial races. Among the top 30 interest group spenders, Republican- leaning organizations greatly outspent Democratic ones by a margin of over 2:1.

"What we're seeing is that groups advertising on behalf of Republican candidates are spending twice as much as groups pressing for Democratic candidates," says Franz. "We can't predict what will happen in the next five weeks, but it's getting later and later into the cycle and it looks to me like the Republican groups really do have the advantage this cycle."

The Wesleyan Media Project is the successor to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, an online database that tracked and analyzed campaign advertisements in the nation's largest media markets from 1998 to 2008. In light of the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision, the Wesleyan Media Project also will provide systematic evidence on the extent of corporate and union spending.

The Wesleyan Media Project is directed by Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University; Michael Franz at Bowdoin College; Travis N. Ridout, at Washington State University. Support is provided by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Sunlight Foundation, Wesleyan University, Bowdoin College and Washington State University

Michael Franz is the author of several books on campaign advertising, including Choices and Changes: Interest Groups and the Electoral Process (Temple University Press, 2008), based on his doctoral research, which was awarded the American Political Science Association's Schattschneider Award for the best doctoral dissertation in American government.

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