If you started watching every political ad aired in the run-up to the November election in 2018 on New Year’s Day, it would take you until somewhere around Labor Day to see them all.
And that’s just the ads for Minnesota’s eight congressional, two U.S. Senate and statewide races such as governor, attorney general and secretary of state. It doesn’t include legislative elections or local contests.
In fact, the 2018 election in Minnesota saw an unprecedented amount of political advertising: $120 million was spent on 671,000 political ads on television, cable and radio to influence voting. That’s according to an accounting of every ad listed in FCC filings by a team of student journalists as part of a project at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
This is the first election cycle that such ad-spending data can be easily gathered, since the Federal Communications Commission only recently required cable operators to file documentation of ad purchases electronically. The data — which detailed political ad purchases at every TV, cable and radio station in Minnesota — was collected on a week-by-week basis, providing an opportunity to study election advertising by campaigns and outside groups in close-to-real time.
Close races, late buying
Comparing 2018 ad spending to previous elections cycles is difficult, in part because of the looser requirements for filing of cable ad buys before this year. But data show that spending at the top four Twin Cities television stations almost doubled from 2016, a presidential election. About $23 million in ads ran on those stations two years ago, compared with almost $43 million this year. In the 2014 midterm, WCCO and KARE, the only stations of the top four for which data are available, sold more than $14 million in ad time. This year the amount exceeded $25 million.
The results reflected Minnesota’s status as a key battleground state in an election that set a national record for midterm spending. Nationally, candidates and interest groups spent a midterm-record $5.2 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes all spending, not just TV and radio advertising.
Much of the money was spent in the last weeks before Election Day. Early on, experts had projected record spending, and by early October, more than $70 million had been spent on ads in Minnesota.
But as polls showed many races tightening through October, more money started to pour in, with ad buys worth almost $46 million across the state being filed with the FCC from Oct. 9 to Nov. 13. That translates to roughly 346,000 ads. (Not all of those ads ran during that late period, however. In some cases, TV and radio stations simply made late filings for ads that had run earlier.)
While Minnesota may not get the same attention in 2020 as it did in 2018, big spending is here to stay, said Steven Schier, professor emeritus of political science at Carleton College. “There are so many people wanting to influence the outcome of elections and so many people in organizations with money, and they find ways to spend it,” he said.
Democrats outspend Republicans
In terms of TV and radio ad spending, Democrats also dominated in Minnesota. The candidates’ own campaigns spent about $24 million in the U.S. House and Senate races and the governor’s race. Republican candidates spent $14 million.
Of the U.S. House races, the 3rd Congressional District’s candidates, Republican Erik Paulsen and Democrat Dean Phillips, spent the most, with a combined total of more than $10 million. Paulsen lost despite spending the most on TV and radio ads of any congressional candidate in the state.
In the U.S. Senate contests, Democrat Tina Smith and Republican Karin Housley spent more than $8 million in the special election to fill the seat for the remaining two years of Al Franken’s term.
But outside interest groups spent more money on ads than candidates – about $75 million across the state. About $58 million of that was spent by the 10 most active groups. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the party arm that supports Democrats running for the House, topped the list with $14 million alone.
The DCCC was followed by its Republican Party counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent $9 million in Minnesota. Next was the Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC, with $8.4 million, and the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a liberal super PAC, with $7.1 million.
“A lot of the real slash-and-burn stuff isn’t actually coming from candidates,” Schier said. Often, the candidates themselves kept their ads more upbeat to avoid backlash and create a positive image.
Did the spending work?
The thing is, nobody really knows how well political ads work. Experts say those massive amounts were being spent based more on hope than certainty. Campaigns and interest groups try to outspend their opponents as kind of an insurance policy, knowing it doesn’t guarantee victory. Of the 11 major races in Minnesota, seven of the candidates who won spent more on TV and radio advertising than their opponents.
A favorite phrase of retail advertisers also applies to political ads, said David Wilcox, a Marquette University strategic communications professor and 25-year veteran of the advertising business: “Fifty percent of my advertising dollars are wasted; I just don’t know what half.”
Put another way, “Effectiveness is the elusive golden ticket. You try to find ways to measure it, but … you have no way of knowing what contributed to it,” Wilcox said.
In the business world, companies set up tests on audiences before and after exposure to an advertisement to get the best reading of effectiveness, Wilcox said. In the quick pace of the election cycle, however, campaigns don’t have that kind of time, and their ad strategy is “rushed, or otherwise is deployed rapidly,” he said.
The result is that campaigns often don’t have a clear picture of which ads hit their mark and which ones fall flat. Still, campaigns throw millions at races in response to new polling numbers and sometimes simply to counter spending by the opposition party.
“It’s … reactionary and gut feeling. Sometimes that’s all it takes,” Wilcox said.
Research suggests that political advertising often does more to get out the vote than to change voters’ minds about candidates, and the biggest spenders didn’t always win. In the 8th Congressional District, for example, DFL candidate Joe Radinovich spent five times more than his opponent, Republican Pete Stauber, but lost by 5 percentage points. In the 1st Congressional District, Democrat Dan Feehan spent over $2 million on ads, compared with Republican Jim Hagedorn’s $334,000. But Hagedorn won. Outside groups spent heavily in both races.
Minnesota’s 2nd District saw a rematch this midterm between Democrat Angie Craig and Republican incumbent Jason Lewis, who had defeated Craig for the same seat two years earlier. The race remained tight up until Nov. 6, when Craig won with almost 53 percent of the vote. She also spent almost double the amount of money advertising that Lewis did: more than $4.4 million vs. his $2.3 million. Viewers of a Green Bay Packers football game the Sunday before the election may have been especially aware of how much Craig spent on ads; around $18,000 worth of ads aired during the game.
But whether Craig’s money – or the rest of the $5.2 billion spent nationally – paid off will be studied and argued at least until the next election. Most voters, said the UW-Madison’s Canon, have made up their minds before they even see an ad. And most vote a straight-party ticket.
But one prediction is in less doubt: The big spending will continue as 2020 approaches.
This story is part of the Charnley Project at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The 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 was created to put students and professors together to produce and publish professional-quality work as part of a class at the journalism school.