In case you’re wondering: Yes, you are seeing a whole lot of political ads — more than $71 million worth of ads across Minnesota airwaves, not even counting the state legislative races.
Candidates and interest groups had bought space for more than 330,000 TV and radio ads as of Oct. 9, still a month before election day. On network and cable television, the ad buys account for nearly 2,600 hours of ad time – enough to cover 107 full days of nothing but political commercials.
If that number seems higher than other estimates floating around, there’s a reason for that. This is the first election cycle for which political advertising can be quantified across radio, television and cable without visiting individual stations; the Federal Communications Commission only now requires cable operators to file ad purchases electronically. Other studies about this year’s campaign ad spending mostly utilize documents from Minnesota’s Campaign Finance Board or the Federal Elections Commission. But the delays in reporting campaign activity to those organizations can be lengthy, while the FCC database is updated regularly.
Still, a complete accounting of the ads isn’t an easy process. Each TV network station, cable company and radio station files its reports via a pdf document, meaning each ad purchase must be collected and counted individually. The process, done on a week-by-week basis, provides an opportunity to study election advertising by campaigns and outside groups in close to real time. (The data doesn’t include satellite companies, who are not required to file in as timely a manner.)
That accounting was done by a team of student journalists at the University of Minnesota, which has been reviewing each filing for Minnesota’s eight congressional races, two U.S. Senate races and the statewide races for governor, attorney general, state treasurer and state auditor. The process, done on a week-by-week basis, provides an opportunity to study election advertising by campaigns and outside groups in close to real time.
“I think getting a fuller picture of who’s influencing voters is always helpful,” said Dan Weiner, the senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University. “The really important disclosure is the big ad buys, because those are the things that actually bring leverage to people in power.”
Comparisons to previous cycles difficult
Nationally, this year’s election is believed to be the costliest midterm ever. And the level of ad spending in Minnesota reflects its status as a key battleground contest. Much of the money is targeting the state’s four most competitive congressional districts, which could be key in deciding which party controls the U.S. House. Those are four Minnesota races out of 38 nationally in which overall outside spending has outpaced candidate spending, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
In all, Minnesota candidates had bought nearly 171,000 ads, spending more than $22 million by Oct. 9. Non-candidate issue groups, such as PACs, super PACs and the political parties’ campaign committees, had bought time for 164,000 ads at a cost of $49 million. Many of the purchases are to reserve time for ads that are yet to run. And more ad space is being purchased every day.
Comparing the levels of ad purchases to previous years is difficult for several reasons – including the looser reporting requirements in previous years. But purchases at the Twin Cities’ four main network stations – WCCO, KSTP, KMSP (FOX9) and KARE – can be compared, and the numbers show large increases in spending by outside groups this year.
For example, outside groups – as opposed to the campaigns of the candidates themselves – spent 23 percent more this year at the four stations with weeks still to go before the election, compared to the entire 2016 election cycle. That’s a $5.2 million increase at the four stations.
It won’t be clear until after the election just how much groups and candidates will spend on ads, however. Many reserve TV and radio air time through election day and often will add or cancel purchases as the election nears. Some will shift purchases from one station to another, and outside groups will cancel ads for a race seen as unwinnable and transfer the spending to other states.
Outside groups focus on Congress
It’s the outside groups – specifically, the super PACs and the national campaign committees run by each party — that are most dominant on Minnesota airwaves. And the three biggest-spending groups are focused on the U.S. House races, specifically the close races in southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District ; the southern Twin Cities 2nd District; the Hennepin County suburbs’ 3rd District; and northeastern Minnesota’s 8th District.
The 10 top-spending groups are nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with conservative groups spending slightly more.
The top spender is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which exists to get Democrats elected to the U.S. House. It had spent more than $12 million on ads by early October. The next two biggest-spending groups are working to elect conservatives. The National Republican Congressional Committee had spent $7.3 million, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC, had spent $6.6 million. The fourth highest ad spender is the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a super PAC that has spent $5 million and has focused mostly on electing DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz.
Often, negative ads are from the outside groups rather than the candidates, in part because that allows the candidates to be more positive, talk about themselves and avoid alienating voters who dislike attack ads. Such attack ads are hard to miss. The DCCC, for example, has aired the ads calling Republican Congressman Jason Lewis “all Washington now,” and claiming he sides with insurance companies over senior citizens. The Congressional Leadership Fund aired the ads saying that Lewis’s District 2 opponent, Democrat Angie Craig, “should be ashamed” for standing behind state Attorney General candidate Keith Ellison, who has been accused of, and has denied, a charge of domestic abuse by an ex-girlfriend.
Of the top 10-spending groups, eight are based in Washington, D.C. That means that Washington has a strong hand in shaping the political views of Minnesota candidates, said Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration who lost in the Democratic primary race to Sen. Tina Smith.
Those outside spenders “don’t care about the issues of interest to Minnesotans. They just care that their party controls the House,” Painter said. “It’s D.C. money that’s influencing Minnesota races. And that’s common.”
Candidate spending big
It’s not just the outside groups that are spending big on close House races, though. The candidates are too. Of the approximately $22 million spent for TV and radio ads by all of the state’s congressional, U.S. Senate, and governor candidates as of Oct. 9, more than half had been spent in the four closest House races, in Congressional Districts 1, 2, 3 and 8.
The top-spending candidates were Democrat Angie Craig in the 2nd Congressional District, with $2.8 million; followed by the two candidates in the District 3 race — Republican Erik Paulsen and Democrat Dean Phillips — both at about $2.3 million. Craig’s opponent, incumbent Republican Jason Lewis, spent $1.9 million.
In the U.S. Senate races, the incumbents have far outspent their opponents. Democrat Tina Smith had spent $3 million, followed by Democrat Amy Klobuchar at $2 million. Smith’s opponent, Republican Karin Housley, had spent about $1.2 million.
In the race for governor, Walz had spent $1.7 million, and Republican Jeff Johnson had spent $654,000.
Still, differences in candidate spending have become less important as the outside groups increase their spending. Much of that increase is due to a 2010 Court of Appeals decision that created the so-called “super PACs,” which have no limits or restrictions on money they can raise from corporations, unions, associations and individuals. Unlike traditional PACs, they cannot donate directly to candidates, and they can’t coordinate with the candidates they support. But they can spend unlimited amounts to support or defeat a specific candidate.
Health care and attack ads rule
The outside groups also focus on hot-button issues they know can help their candidate. And while super PACs can’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign, their ads can sound similar. In many ways, they’re working off the same script.
Take health care. Polling by the Star Tribune and MPR News in September found it was the most important issue to likely voters in both the governor’s race and the special U.S. Senate races. And health care has dominated the political commercials in recent weeks.
Many Republican ads have criticized Democrats for supporting “government run” health care or have claimed that the Affordable Care Act has driven up costs for citizens. Democrats have criticized Republicans for supporting proposals to weaken the Affordable Care Act or for catering to the interests of pharmaceutical companies.
One organization studying six key topics in Minnesota political ads found that health care topped the list. It was mentioned in 58 percent of ads in the state’s federal races in September, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. The second-most mentioned topic was taxes, at 16 percent. Those same issues also topped the list nationally.
Wesleyan also reported what is already clear to any Minnesotan paying attention: negativity rules, especially in the U.S. House races. In a study measuring negativity in House races across the country, two Minnesota districts ranked in the top 10. They were in District 3 (Paulsen vs. Phillips), sixth overall, with 67 percent of ads being negative; and District 1 (Republican Jim Hagedorn vs. Democrat Dan Feehan), eighth overall, with 65 percent negative.
A recent review of the political ads on the 10 p.m. news at the four main Twin Cities stations found that slightly more than half were negative. “In close races, lots of ads tend to be negative,” said Paul Goren, chairman of the University of Minnesota Political Science Department. And there are plenty of close races in Minnesota this year.
This story is part of the Charnley Project at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Charnley Project course is funded by an endowment in the name of the late Mitchell Charnley, a professor and expert in news reporting and broadcast journalism who retired in 1966 and died in 1991. The endowment in his name was created to put students and professors together to produce and publish professional-quality work as part of a class at the journalism school.