Super PACs dominate 2016; “Dark Money” a Growing Presence Since 2000

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A new historical analysis of political advertising data by the Wesleyan Media Project, in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics, reveals several important findings about the involvement of outside groups in elections over the past decade and a half.  In particular, the report provides an in-depth assessment of outside group advertising (2.4 million airings) over time, examining trends in the activity of different types of groups (as defined by their donor disclosure) and the involvement of different groups at various points in an election cycle.

Highlights of the special report

  • There has been a vast increase in the volume of advertising sponsored by outside groups between 2000 and 2016.
  • The share of ads sponsored by outside groups between 2000 and 2016 has increased dramatically.
  • Whereas 527 organizations dominated advertising in 2004, super PACs now sponsor the most outside group advertising.
  • Dark money groups (also known as non-disclosing groups) have been a consistent presence since 2000 and are much more active before the FEC’s 60-day reporting window. The overall volume of ad buys from dark money groups has increased in recent cycles, and even though the share of ads from dark money groups has declined relative to super PACs, their raw ad totals remain high.
  • The vast majority of groups are active in a single election cycle.

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For the last nine election cycles, the Wesleyan Media Project and its predecessor, the Wisconsin Advertising Project, have coded political ads airing on local broadcast television stations across the country. As part of that work, both projects have tracked airings by candidates and formal party organizations in addition to outside groups who not only advocate on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for federal and state office but also advertise about issues and public policy debates, often highlighting—in a positive or negative light—the policy positions of those candidates. Outside groups come in many forms, which vary in the extent to which they report donors to federal or state campaign finance regulators, with some (specifically “dark money” organizations) not publicly reporting their donors.

This report focuses on the efforts of outside groups in federal elections since 2000, documenting both the growing presence of these groups in federal elections over the last nine election cycles and the many different types of groups involved in federal elections and how they are involved. We pay special attention to dark money groups and their activity relative to the FEC reporting windows.

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Group-Sponsored Ads Skyrocket since 2000

The motivation for this report is one important fact: Outside group involvement in television advertising in federal elections has grown substantially over the past decade and a half for which the Wesleyan Media Project has tracking data. In our previous work, we have established some of the following:

  • Outside groups sponsored more than half of all Republican primary ads in the 2012 and 2016 presidential race but were largely inactive in such primary election contests in previous years.
  • Outside groups aired more ads in the 2012 presidential general election than in any previous presidential election.
  • Outside groups sponsored nearly 30 percent of all ads aired in congressional primary and general elections in 2012 and 2014.
  • Groups are much more heavily involved in competitive contests than non-competitive ones.

For our analyses, we examined all ads aired in federal elections between 2000 and 2016.  The Wisconsin Advertising Project tracked ads in the top 75 media markets in the election of 2000; that number expanded to the top 100 markets in 2002 and 2004.  The Wesleyan Media Project tracked ads in the top 100 markets in 2006 and expanded to include all 210 media markets from 2008 through 2016 (2008 data were analyzed by Wisconsin). We also only include ads aired on local broadcast stations and national cable networks, excluding local cable buys, radio ads, and print and digital ads.

First, the volume of ads sponsored by groups has increased considerably over time.  Tracking data show just under 80,000 airings by outside groups in federal elections in 2000—about 10 percent of all ads—compared to nearly 880,000 in the 2012 election cycle, which accounted for more than 1 in every 4 ads aired that election cycle.

Second, and as shown in Figure 1, group advertising as a proportion of all ads on the air has also grown steadily since 2006. Group-sponsored advertising accounted for 14 percent of all airings in 2004 (groups sponsored 1 in every 5 presidential ads that year but only 4 percent of congressional ads) but rose to nearly a third (32.5 percent) of all airings in 2016 cycle-to-date.

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