Heated Battle for U.S. Senate Draws Deluge of Outside Group Ads, Most Are Dark Money

Groups Responsible for Majority of GOP Ads;
Huge Republican Ad Advantage in House Races Disappears in August

(MIDDLETOWN, CT) September 4, 2014 – With prognosticators giving even odds that Republicans will take over the U.S. Senate after this November’s elections, outside groups are taking notice. Almost 52 percent of ads aired in favor of Republican candidates have been sponsored by interest groups, and that figure is 40 percent on the Democratic side. Groups have spent an estimated $97 million on advertising in Senate races this election cycle, which is up from the estimated $78 million spent to this point in the 2012 election cycle. Table 1 provides total ad counts by sponsor in Senate races in the current and the 2012 election cycles, including all ads aired through August 30 in each cycle.

Table 1: Ad Totals and Spending* in 2012 and 2014 Senate Races

Totals are from January 1, 2011, to August 30, 2012 and from January 1, 2013, to August 30, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
2012 Pro-Democratic
Ads aired71,16711,34116233,682116,352
Row %61.17%9.75%0.14%28.95%
2012 Pro-GOP
Ads aired154,4001,7120112,428268,540
Row %57.5%0.64%0%41.87%
2014 Pro-Democratic
Ads aired107,5849,5853,64481,254202,067
Row %53.24%4.74%1.8%40.21%
% count change51.17%-15.48%2149.38%141.24%73.67%
2014 Pro-GOP
Ads aired124,3895901,214134,829261,022
Row %47.65%0.23%0.47%51.65%
% count change-19.44%-65.54%19.92%-2.8%

While the volume of Democratic advertising trails the volume of Republican advertising somewhat in races for the Senate, the disparity in the volume of advertising is stark in U.S. House races, where Democrats are being trounced by Republicans (Table 2). More than twice as many ads favoring Republicans as ads favoring Democrats have aired this cycle. Indeed, the number of pro-Republican ads is up 28 percent over the 2012 election cycle, while the number of Democratic ads is down 24 percent. (These totals, as with Table 1, include primary and general election ads.)

Table 2: Ad Totals and Spending* in 2012 and 2014 House Races

Totals are from January 1, 2011, to August 30, 2012 and from January 1, 2013, to August 30, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
2012 Pro-Democratic
Ads aired60,2213,6881,99714,39780,303
Row %74.99%4.59%2.49%17.93%
2012 Pro-GOP
Ads aired65,3846,5621,02823,86996,843
Row %67.52%6.78%1.06%24.65%
2014 Pro-Democratic
Ads aired40,8774,7657915,13560,856
Row %67.17%7.83%0.13%24.87%
% count change-32.12%29.2%-96.04%5.13%-24.22%
2014 Pro-GOP
Ads aired86,2973,11131734,341124,066
Row %69.56%2.51%0.26%27.68%
% count change31.98%-52.59%-69.16%43.87%28.11%

Democrats, however, have recently upped their volume of advertising. For the month of August, 17,302 ads aired favoring Democratic House candidates compared to 16,072 ads favoring Republican House candidates.

“Democratic House candidates have been out-gunned this election cycle when it comes to advertising, but they have really caught up in the past month,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “We won’t know until Election Day whether that early Republican advantage will turn into substantial Republican gains in the House or whether the money was wasted on voters who were not paying attention.”

The parties were at near parity in August for Senate races as well, with 54,595 Democratic ad airings and 53,447 Republican ad airings during the month. Figure 1 displays the overall balance of ads in federal races for the month of August (through 8/30) this year with dark red showing areas of heavy GOP advantage in airings and dark blue heavy Democratic advantage. (For comparable volume for the full period, please see Figure 1A at the back.)
Figure 1. Advertising Balance in U.S. House and U.S. Senate Races


Nearly 150,000 Undisclosed Ads in Federal Races

A Wesleyan Media Project analysis, in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics, reveals that over half (56 percent) of the group-sponsored ads aired so far are “dark money” ads (those from sponsors who do not have to disclose their donors) , which have aired at an estimated cost of over $68 million (Figure 2). In Senate races, 57.5 percent of interest group airings were sponsored by 501c4 and 501c6 groups, sometimes referred to as social welfare organizations, which are not required to disclose their donors. Although dark money ad airings make up a smaller proportion of all interest group advertising this cycle compared to last, the total volume of dark money airings has increased in U.S. Senate races from 106,137 at this point in 2012 to 124,281 so far in 2014.

“Dark money ads are on the rise in Senate races, meaning more people are seeing spots from groups they know little about,” said Michael M. Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Research suggests that those ads are more influential, which is troubling.”

On the House side, dark money advertisers make up 50.2 percent of all interest group ads. As a proportion of all activity, dark money is not as dominant in U.S. House races this cycle; however, the total volume of dark money airings is just shy of the 2012 volume at this point in the cycle (24,847 in 2014 compared to 26,290 in 2012).

Figure 2: Interest Group Ad Airings in 2012 and 2014 Elections by Disclosure Type*


Americans for Prosperity Top Spending Group; Senate Majority PAC Top Advertiser

As Table 3 shows, the top-spending group is Americans for Prosperity, a Republican-supporting 501(c)4 group that does not disclose its donors. Americans for Prosperity has spent $16.7 million on advertising in nine Senate races, ten House races and the Kansas gubernatorial race, airing 33,127 ads in total. Senate Majority PAC (a SuperPAC that does disclose) has spent almost as much ($16.6 million) to air 33,750 ads, favoring Democratic candidates in 10 different Senate races. The third biggest group spender, a 527 organization called Let’s Get to Work, has dropped almost $13.2 million on ads favoring incumbent Florida governor Rick Scott.

The dominance of non-disclosing dark money groups is evident in the list of top advertisers. Five out of the top ten do not disclose.

Table 3: Spending and Ad Totals of Top 20 Outside Groups

Totals are from January 1, 2013, to August 30, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Disclosure information from the Center for Responsive Politics.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
Americans for Prosperity$16.7M33,127c4/NoAZ01, AZ02, FL02, FL18, KS04, MI03, NH01, NH02, NV03, WV03, AK, AR, CO, IA, LA, MI, MT, NC, NH Senate, KS Governor
Senate Majority PAC$16.6M33,750SuperPAC /YesAR, CO, IA, KY, LA, MA, MI, NC, NH, WV Senate
Let's Get To Work$13.2M26,723527/YesFL Governor
Crossroads GPS$8.1M16,423c4/NoCA07, CA52, IL12, WV03, AK, AR, CO, IA, NC, NH Senate
U.S. Chamber Of Commerce$7.9M15,985c6/NoAZ01, CA21, CO06, FL13, ID02, IL10, KY06, MA06, MN08, NC07, NV03, NY19, WV03, AK, CO, GA, IA, KY, MI, MS, MT, NC, WV Senate
Illinois Freedom PAC$6.7M5,503527/YesIL Governor
Patriot Majority USA$6.2M14,379c4/NoAZ01, CA52, FL18, GA04, GA12, WA09, AR, KY, LA, NC Senate
NextGen Climate Action Committee$4.4M12,929SuperPAC /YesNY, FL, PA, VA Governor, CO, IA, NH Senate
Kentucky Opportunity Coalition$4.0M9,833c4/NoKY Senate
Democratic Governors Association$3.9M6,244527/YesMI, SC Governor
Ending Spending Action Fund$3.7M6,013SuperPAC /YesVA Governor, NC03, GA,
MI, NH Senate
Independence USA PAC$3.3M2,616SuperPAC /YesVA Governor, IL02, NJ Senate
American Crossroads$3.1M7,637SuperPAC /YesFL13, NY21, AK, AR, IA, MT, NC Senate
House Majority PAC$2.9M7,478SuperPAC /YesAZ01, AZ02, CA07, CA31, CO06, FL02, FL13, IL13, MN08, NV03, OH14, SC01, WV03
Citizens For A Working America PAC$2.4M4,673SuperPAC /NoGA Senate
Republican Governors Association$2.8M2,012527/YesAR, AZ, CO, KS, ME, MI, NE, NJ, NM, NM, OH, SC, VA
Club For Growth$2.3M6,285PAC, c4/PartialAL06, ID02, MI03, NH02, AK, AR, MS, NE Senate
Concerned Veterans For America$2.1M5,816c4/NoTX23, AR, IA, NC Senate
Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce$2.1M5,853c6/NoAK, CO, IA, LA, MI, OR Senate
American Chemistry Council$1.8M6,371c6/NoGA12, ID02, IL13, KS04, NE02, VA07, AK, GA, KY, SC, WV Senate

Most Groups Increase Advertising over 2012 Election Cycle

Many of the groups that advertised in House and Senate races in 2012 have increased their activity in these races in 2014 (Table 4). Senate Majority PAC, a group that supports Democratic Senate candidates, had aired about 12,000 ads by the end of August in 2012. By the same point in 2014, the group has aired almost 34,000 ads. A similar increase was evident for Americans for Prosperity, a Republican group, which has increased its ad volume from 8,200 in 2012 to 33,000 in 2014 federal races. Two groups, however, have cut back their involvement in House and Senate advertising: Club for Growth and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Table 4: Comparison of 2012 and 2014 Group Ad Airings in House and Senate Races

GroupParty LeanDiscloseType2012 Airings2014 Airings
Totals are from January 1, 2011, to August 30, 2012 and from January 1, 2013, to August 30, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. Disclosure information from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Senate Majority PACDemocraticyesSuperPAC12,04233,750
Americans for ProsperityRepublicannoc48,19833,127
Crossroads GPSRepublicannoc43,04216,423
U.S. Chamber of CommerceRepublicannoc636,07115,985
Patriot Majority USADemocraticnoc46,79514,379
American CrossroadsRepublicanyesSuperPAC3,7147,637
House Majority PACDemocraticyesSuperPAC2,7607,478
American Chemistry CouncilBothnoc64,7866,371
Club for GrowthRepublicanpartialPAC/c49,8936,285
Freedom PartnersRepublicannoc65,853

Interest Groups Dominate Advertising in Competitive Senate Races

Table 5 shows the top ten Senate races by ad count. The race with the highest number of advertisements is in North Carolina, where incumbent Kay Hagen and challenger Thom Tillis face off. Over 44,000 ads, at an estimated cost of $25.2 million, have aired. Remarkably, 80 percent of the ad airings were sponsored by outside groups. It is a pattern that repeats in many of the most competitive Senate races: Interest groups sponsored the majority of the advertising. The most expensive Senate race so far is in Georgia (likely due to higher costs in Georgia markets compared to North Carolina or Kentucky) where David Perdue and Michelle Nunn face each other. Over $26 million has been spent in that race to buy over 37,000 ads.

Table 5: Top Senate Races by Ad Counts

 CountEst. Cost*Percent IG-sponsored
Totals are from January 1, 2013, to August 30, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.

The same figures are reported in Table 6 for gubernatorial races. The hot gubernatorial races in 2014 are in Florida and Pennsylvania. In both states, more than 50,000 ads have already aired, fast approaching the 60,800 total ad airings in 2013’s gubernatorial races in Virginia. What separates Florida and Pennsylvania, though, is the extent to which outside groups are involved. In Florida, over half the airings are sponsored by groups, which compares to just 7.5 percent in Pennsylvania.

Table 6: Top Gubernatorial Races by Ad Counts

 CountEst. Cost*Percent IG-sponsored
Totals are from January 1, 2013, to August 30, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.

The Affordable Care Act Remains a Prominent Target

Although the 2013-2014 open enrollment period has come and gone, attacks on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have not stopped. In fact, anti-ACA messaging has appeared in roughly one quarter of all federal campaign ads since January 1, 2013, a grand total of 160,636 ads aired across the country. In contrast, a mere 9,264 ads contain somewhat positive (in many cases very oblique, at best not explicitly anti-ACA) language about the law. Not surprisingly, anti-Obamacare messaging was most prominent during the open enrollment period as a proportion of all campaign ads on air (October 1, 2013, through March 31, 2014). In that period, over four in every ten campaign ads aired (42 percent) in U.S. House and U.S. Senate races contained some kind of anti-ACA language. In contrast, the post-enrollment period has seen a drop in the proportion of airings devoted to anti-ACA language (23 percent), but this is primarily due to the increase in campaign messaging generally.

“Anti-ACA messaging has not gone away; in fact, ads attacking the Affordable Care Act have actually increased in number since open enrollment closed,” explained Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Americans across the country are seeing many more political ads going after the ACA than before.”
Figure 3: Campaign Ads Mentioning the Affordable Care Act
Figure 4: Campaign Ads Mentioning the Affordable Care Act by Race


About This Report

Data reported here do not cover local cable buys, only broadcast television and national cable buys. All cost estimates are precisely that: estimates. Content information is based on ongoing Wesleyan Media Project coding and analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG video. Disclosure categorization information on interest groups comes from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Wesleyan Media Project provides real-time tracking and analysis of all political television advertising in an effort to increase transparency in elections. Housed in Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center – part of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life – the Wesleyan Media Project is the successor to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which disbanded in 2009. It is directed by Erika Franklin Fowler, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, Michael M. Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College and Travis N. Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University. Laura Baum is the Project Manager.

The Wesleyan Media Project is supported by grants from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and Wesleyan University. Data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project using Academiclip, a web-based coding tool. The Wesleyan Media Project is partnering in 2014 with both the Center for Responsive Politics, to provide added information on interest group disclosure, and Ace Metrix, to assess ad effectiveness.

The Center for Responsive Politics is the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy. Nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, the organization aims to create a more educated voter, an involved citizenry and a more transparent and responsive government. CRP’s award-winning website, OpenSecrets.org, is the most comprehensive resource available anywhere for federal campaign contribution and lobbying data and analysis.

Periodic releases of data will be posted on the project’s website and dispersed via Twitter @wesmediaproject. To be added to our email update list, click here.

For more information contact:
Lauren Rubenstein, lrubenstein@wesleyan.edu, (860) 685-3813

About Wesleyan University
Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., is known for the excellence of its academic and co-curricular programs. With more than 2,900 undergraduates and 200 graduate students, Wesleyan is dedicated to providing a liberal arts education characterized by boldness, rigor and practical idealism. For more, visit www.wesleyan.edu.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.

About the MacArthur Foundation
The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. More information is at www.macfound.org.
Figure 1A: Volume of Advertising in Federal Races by Media Market (2013-14)

Table A1: Ad Totals for Interest Groups in Competitive Senate Races

  Disclose?Ads AiredEst. Cost
Totals are from January 1, 2013, to August 30, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Disclosure information from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Alaska Conservation Votersn532$ 99,551
Alaska's Energy America's Valuesy75$ 10,895
American Chemistry Counciln1,286$ 93,871
American Crossroadsy1,673$ 175,051
American Energy Alliancen994$ 114,979
American Hospital Assny403$ 39,033
Americans for Prosperityn1,575$ 239,617
Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Assnn340$ 47,840
Club for Growthp93$ 18,590
Crossroads GPSn1,947$ 213,170
Freedom Partnersn980$ 97,995
Judicial Crisis Networkn450$ 44,941
Put Alaska First PACy6,635$ 667,685
US Chamber of Commercen764$ 71,208
VoteVets.orgn466$ 56,520
American Action Networkn298$ 174,523
American Crossroadsy987$ 408,930
American Hospital Assny254$ 129,065
Americans for Prosperityn3,744$ 1,691,100
Americans United for Changen39$ 12,728
Center Forwardn177$ 45,450
Club for Growthp558$ 156,935
Concerned Veterans for American548$ 289,022
Crossroads GPSn3,349$ 1,261,310
Government Integrity Fundn2,418$ 1,100,089
International Assn of Fire Fightersy335$ 136,880
Judicial Crisis Networkn170$ 74,786
National Federation for Independent Businessn118$ 35,179
NEA Advocacy Fundy491$ 216,360
Patriot Majority USAn3,847$ 1,601,774
Reclaim America PACy104$ 47,042
Senate Majority PACy2,599$ 1,111,849
AFSCME PEOPLEy1,114$ 574,020
American Energy Alliancen452$ 241,950
American Wind Energy Assnn437$ 369,020
Americans for Prosperityn2,486$ 996,955
Colorado Fair Sharen310$ 200,080
Crossroads GPSn2,157$ 1,797,260
Freedom Partnersn699$ 442,504
Generation Opportunityn824$ 627,800
League of Conservation Votersn823$ 769,831
NextGen Climate Actiony908$ 386,050
Service Employees International Uniony42$ 18,090
Senate Majority PACy2,912$ 1,865,075
US Chamber of Commercen1,306$ 571,770
American Chemsitry Counciln631$ 205,970
American Future Fundn98$ 134,680
Citizens for a Working America PACn4,819$ 2,414,739
Ending Spending Action Fundy3,451$ 2,074,577
Jobs & Progress Fundn487$ 442,140
National Republican Senatorial Cmtey598$ 1,091,260
Southern Conservatives Fundy895$ 701,000
US Chamber of Commercen1,534$ 1,819,505
Women Votep559$ 478,670
American Crossroadsy1,102$ 270,280
American Heartland PACy174$ 61,440
American Wind Energy Assnn131$ 34,650
Americans for Prosperityn1,636$ 595,047
Concerned Veterans for American3,727$ 928,440
Crossroads GPSn1,759$ 390,570
Environmental Defense Action Fundn303$ 92,740
Environmental Defense Action Fund/Sierra Clubn407$ 148,790
Freedom Partnersn398$ 125,831
League of Conservation Votersn607$ 227,380
Mom's Clean Air Force/Environmental Defense Fundn585$ 207,400
NextGen Climate Actiony3,926$ 900,250
Priorities for Iowan247$ 66,407
Reclaim America PACy149$ 43,370
Senate Conservatives Actiony179$ 57,780
Senate Majority PACy3,026$ 867,116
Sierra Cluby153$ 38,020
Trees of Libertyn175$ 81,686
US Chamber of Commercen799$ 237,720
VoteVets.orgn214$ 68,150
American Chemistry Counciln736$ 210,007
Credit Union National Assn Conferencey136$ 48,010
Kentuckians for Strong Leadershipy2,561$ 1,241,448
Kentucky Opportunity Coalitionn9,833$ 3,998,422
National Rifle Assny187$ 30,730
Patriot Majority USAn680$ 330,425
Progressive Change Campaign Cmtey43$ 7,355
Public Campaign Action Fund/USActionn948$ 156,461
Senate Conservatives Actiony666$ 194,659
Senate Conservatives Fundy759$ 135,155
Senate Majority PACy4,650$ 1,575,388
US Chamber of Commercen1,405$ 558,355
American Action Networkn348$ 234,452
Americans for Prosperityn5,146$ 2,895,945
Citizens for Conservative Leadershipy10$ 4,400
Freedom Partnersn1,004$ 454,541
Generation Opportunityn792$ 355,630
Judicial Crisis Networkn373$ 154,905
Keep Louisiana Workingn191$ 90,560
Patriot Majority USAn4,650$ 1,774,730
Senate Majority PACy4,233$ 1,740,977
Stronger Financial Michigany633$ 170,910
AFSCMEy467$ 272,399
AFSCME PEOPLEy856$ 503,930
American Sustainable Business Council Action Fundn811$ 358,103
Americans for Prosperityn4,484$ 2,932,744
Ending Spending Action Fundy2,231$ 1,555,850
Environment Michigan/Environment American879$ 416,160
Freedom Partnersn432$ 307,137
League of Conservation Votersn230$ 82,000
Service Employees International Uniony469$ 280,962
Senate Majority PACy3,967$ 2,402,692
US Chamber of Commercen433$ 368,009
VoteVets.orgn204$ 123,670
American Hospital Assny361$ 148,330
Citizens Unitedy675$ 221,430
Club for Growthp3,908$ 1,432,410
Mississippi Conservativesy2,972$ 1,089,543
National Assn of Realtorsn1,189$ 473,750
Senate Conservatives Actiony2,502$ 861,559
Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fundy844$ 246,790
US Chamber of Commercen1,580$ 540,760
North Carolina
60 Plus Assnn581$ 227,470
American Action Networkn471$ 149,798
American Crossroadsy1,659$ 1,404,507
American Energy Alliancen185$ 76,200
Americans for Prosperityn6,012$ 3,695,983
Carolina Risingn1,431$ 677,930
Center Forwardn221$ 36,510
Concerned Veterans for American1,134$ 610,780
Crossroads GPSn4,317$ 2,938,360
Generation Opportunityn795$ 433,780
North Carolina League of Conservation Votersn950$ 611,360
Patriot Majority USAn3,389$ 1,573,160
Senate Majority PACy10,503$ 5,941,879
Southern Alliance for Clean Energyn1,454$ 872,400
US Chamber of Commercen827$ 520,988
Women Speak Out PACp55$ 58,270
Women Votep1,538$ 846,740

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