Interest Group Advertising Pours Into Senate Races

Two-thirds of Senate GOP and Nearly Half of Dem Advertising Sponsored by Outside Groups;

Almost 60 percent of Group Spending is Undisclosed Dark Money

(MIDDLETOWN, CT) April 29, 2014 – With control of the U.S. Senate at stake, advertising in senatorial races is off to an early start, with 109,701 airings at an estimated $43.1 million spent on television ads so far, a 45 percent increase over ad airings in Senate races at this point in the cycle in 2012. Outside groups are responsible for the majority of spots on the airwaves in Senate campaigns (59 percent of airings, a 64 percentage jump over 2012 levels). Just over two-thirds (67 percent) of ads favoring Republican Senate candidates were aired by outside groups, compared to almost half (49 percent) of the ads favoring Democratic Senate candidates.

What is more, a Wesleyan Media Project analysis, in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics, reveals that over half of the group-sponsored ads aired so far are so-called “dark money” ads (see Figure 1). In Senate races, 59 percent of interest group airings were sponsored by 501c3, 501c4 and 501c6 groups, which are not required to disclose their donors. In House races, the equivalent percentage is 57 percent.

(Read more about the Wesleyan Media Project's 2014 ad analysis work, and our grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation here.)



“The 2014 campaigns are currently dominated by interest group advertising,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “And the bulk of the interest group money is coming from dark money groups who don’t disclose their donors.”

Table 1 provides total ad counts by sponsor in Senate races in the current and the 2012 election cycle, including all ads aired through April 24 in each year. Table 2 provides the same information for House races.

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

Totals are from January 1, 2011, to April 24, 2012 and from January 1, 2013, to April 24, 2014.
Numbers include broadcast television and national cable.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
2012 Dem
Ads aired9,1453,33005,27017,745
Row %51.54%18.77%0%29.7%
2012 GOP
Ads aired24,8260034,08758,913
Row %42.14%0%0%57.86%
2014 Dem
Ads aired24,4714027223,50848,453
Row %50.5%0.83%0.15%48.52%
% count change167.59%-87.93%346.07%
2014 GOP
Ads aired19,289085741,10261,248
Row %31.49%0%1.4%67.11%
% count change-22.3%20.58%

Republicans have benefited more from interest group advertising than Democrats despite an increase in Democratic group advertising this year over 2012. In races for Senate, groups have aired about 24,000 ads supportive of Democrats compared to about 41,000 ads supportive of Republicans. In races for the U.S. House, Democrats have benefited from just over 8,000 group-sponsored ads compared to over 12,000 group-sponsored ads on the Republican side.

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

Totals are from January 1, 2011, to April 24, 2012 and from January 1, 2013, to April 24, 2014.
Numbers include broadcast television and national cable.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
2012 Dem
Ads aired20,0402,48608,28330,809
Row %65.05%8.07%0%26.89%
2012 GOP
Ads aired19,4872,86132912,39735,074
Row %55.56%8.16%0.94%35.35%
2014 Dem
Ads aired9,1623,121798,08720,449
Row %44.8%15.26%0.39%39.55%
% count change-54.28%25.54%-2.37%
2014 GOP
Ads aired19,3472,12731712,27334,064
Row %56.8%6.24%0.93%36.03%
% count change-0.72%-25.66%-3.65%-1%

The top-spending group is Americans for Prosperity, a Republican-leaning group that has aired almost 22,000 ads at an estimated cost of $9 million (Table 3). The group has been active in nine races for Senate and nine races for the U.S. House. They are followed by Senate Majority PAC, with $4.3 million in spending. Independence USA PAC, which is third on the list, advertised in two special elections in 2013. Fourth on the list, with $1.4 million in spending, is House Majority PAC.

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

Totals are from January 1, 2013, to April 24, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television and national cable.
Disclosure information from the Center for Responsive Politics.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Americans For Prosperity$8,993,12021,706NoNC, LA, MI, AK, MT, AR, CO, IA, NH Senate, AZ01, AZ02, FL02, FL18, MI03, NH01, NH02, NV03, WV03
Senate Majority PAC$4,259,04011,489YesNC, LA, IA, MI, MA, AR, CO, KY, NH Senate
Independence USA PAC$2,124,9401,844YesNJ Senate, IL02
House Majority PAC$1,440,2304,500YesAZ01, AZ02, CA31, CO06, FL02, FL13, IL13, NV03, OH14, SC01, WV03
Patriot Majority USA$1,127,4903,084NoNC, AR, KY Senate
U.S. Chamber Of Commerce$807,3703,225NoKY, WV, MS Senate, FL13, ID02, WV03
American Chemistry Council$718,2404,171NoAK, KY, WV, SC Senate, GA12, ID02, IL13, NE02
American Crossroads$691,5001,931YesAK, NC, MT Senate, FL13
Ending Spending Action Fund$686,8401,479NoGA, NH Senate, NC03
Kentucky Opportunity Coalition$679,1001,979NoKY Senate
Southern Alliance For Clean Energy$655,9401,454NoNC Senate
Kentuckians For Strong Leadership$612,6301,752YesKY Senate
American Action Network$533,9301,271NoNC, LA, AR Senate, FL13
Club For Growth$474,2901,910YesMS, AR Senate, ID02, MI03
Americans For Progressive Action$454,660680YesMA Senate
Freedom Partners Chamber Of Commerce$413,5001,301NoLA, AK, CO, IA, MI Senate
Center Forward$395,730951NoAZ02, AZ09, IL17, TX23
60 Plus Association$335,580725NoNC, VA Senate
Senate Conservatives Action$324,9901,323YesKY, MS Senate
Mississippi Conservatives$320,0401,210YesMS Senate

Figure 2 displays graphically the volume of campaign advertising in U.S. House and U.S. Senate races for 2013 through April 24, 2014 and outlines all markets where interest group advertising makes up more than 75 percent of the total airings. As shown by the figure, in several markets throughout the country, interest group advertisers are drowning out the voices of all others.


Table 4 shows the top ten Senate races by ad count. All ten of these races have already seen at least 5,000 ad airings, with North Carolina topping the list. Almost 15,000 ads, costing $6.3 million, have aired in the Senate race in the Tar Heel State. Part of the reason for the influx of ads is a competitive Republican primary. The special election in Massachusetts last year (both the April 30 primary and June 25 general election) saw over 12,000 ads, while Kentucky’s 2014 race, featuring incumbent Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has drawn almost 12,000 ads to-date. The table in the appendix provides a full list of ad sponsors, including the number of ads aired and dollars spent, in all competitive Senate races.

In many of the races, the large volume of advertising is driven by group sponsors. In North Carolina, groups sponsored 90 percent of the ads, and groups have sponsored more than three in four ads in Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky and Alaska. “Up to this point, outside groups are controlling the issue agenda in many Senate races. I almost feel sorry for the candidates as their voices are being drowned out,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

One reason for the onslaught of outside group spending may be that such ads work. “Research demonstrates that group-sponsored advertising can be more effective than candidate advertising,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “This is especially true when people know very little about the group except that it has a nice name—and thus they perceive these groups to be more credible than the candidates running for office,” Franz explained. Indeed, research from Ace Metrix, a company that assesses the effectiveness of political ads and a Wesleyan Media Project partner, also reveals that some of the highest-testing ads this election season have been sponsored by outside groups.

Table 4: Top Senate Races by Ad Counts

StateCountEst. Cost*Percent IG-sponsored
Totals are from January 1, 2013, to April 24, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television and national cable.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
**Numbers listed are all from 2013 special election
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
North Carolina14,870$6,360,83090%

The same figures are reported in Table 5 for the U.S. House races. Ad spending in many House races on the ballot in November 2014 is not heavy yet; many of the races on the list in Table 5 are special elections that have already been held. Still, Democrat Nick Rahall’s seat in West Virginia has been heavily targeted by advertisers. Indeed, almost all of the spending in that race has come from interest groups, both Republican and Democratic. Groups have also entered into the Republican primary race in Idaho’s second congressional district, where incumbent Mike Simpsons faces a challenge. All of the advertising in that race, along with Arizona’s second congressional district, has come from interest groups.

Table 5: Top House Races by Ad Counts

DistrictCountEst. Cost*Percent IG-sponsored
Totals are from January 1, 2013, to April 24, 2014. Numbers include broadcast television and national cable.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.

Americans Know Little About Top Group Advertisers

Although interest groups have dominated advertising so far, Americans know little about them—and the vast majority of Americans have not even heard of the groups responsible for many of the electioneering ads on television. A survey commissioned by the Wesleyan Media Project reveals that there are only three interest group ad sponsors that most Americans have heard of: Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Table 6 reports the percentage of Americans who have never heard of each of 20 interest group advertisers. Fifty-six percent of Americans reported that they had never heard of Americans for Prosperity, in spite of the group’s being the top ad sponsor in the current election cycle. (Notably, this group was also quite active in the 2012 presidential election, airing over 44,000 ads in the fall of 2012.)  Fully 81 percent of Americans reported never having heard of Club for Growth, and nearly three quarters (74 percent) of Americans reported never having heard of Crossroads GPS, two of the biggest advertisers in past election cycles.

“That most Americans haven’t even heard of the top advertisers this year is troubling for the prospect of accountability,” said the WMP’s Fowler. “How can citizens hold groups responsible for the content of their ads if they don’t know anything about the sponsor?”

Table 6: Knowledge of Group Advertisers

Group% haven't heard of# House and Senate Ads
Findings based on a survey of a representative sample of 1000 adults living in the United States.
The survey was carried out by YouGov and was in the field April 24-25, 2014.
Margin of error is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Planned Parenthood90
National Rifle Association110
U.S. Chamber of Commerce173,225
Senate Majority PAC4111,489
House Majority PAC424,500
Americans for Prosperity5621,706
League of Conservation Voters64153
American Crossroads651,931
American Energy Alliance701,394
Crossroads GPS74416
Americans for Job Security78257
American Action Network791,271
Freedom Partners801,301
Club for Growth811,910
American Future Fund85120
Patriot Majority USA853,084
Independence USA PAC861,844
Ending Spending Fund881,479
60 Plus Association88725
American Chemistry Council904,171

Advertising Mentioning the Affordable Care Act

As expected, anti-Affordable Care Act messaging is shaping up to be one of the largest issues of the 2014 midterms. Over 187 unique ads (82 for U.S. House and 105 for U.S. Senate) contained a message against the health care law, including 21 new spots that started airing on April 23, suggesting that the anti-ACA onslaught may ramping up. The bulk of this activity to date has come from Americans for Prosperity, which has included an anti-ACA message in every one of its 21,706 airings.

To date, 35 percent of ads (38,392 airings) in U.S. Senate races and 29 percent of ads (16,009 airings) in U.S. House races contained an anti-ACA message. However, there is wide variation in the extent to which a particular race is focused on the health care law and its roll-out. Figure 3 displays the variation in volume (top panel) and proportion (bottom panel) of anti-ACA messaging in markets throughout the country. In contrast, messaging explicitly in favor of the ACA is virtually non-existent. Only a few ads touch the subject, preferring to, for example, reference requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions rather than reference the ACA directly.



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  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,, is the most comprehensive resource available anywhere for federal campaign contribution and lobbying data and analysis.

Ace Metrix is the standard in creative effectiveness analytics for television advertising.  A venture-backed startup in Silicon Valley, the company identifies the effectiveness of television commercials through a patent pending algorithm that determines the persuasive elements of an ad and the future intention to watch the ad. Since 2012, Ace Metrix has scored over 1,000 political and issue/advocacy commercials representing over 500,000 consumer interactions.  The data can be filtered and sorted by age, gender, income, political activation, political affiliation and education.

Follow the Wesleyan Media Project on Twitter @wesmediaproject. To be added to our email update list, click here.

For more information contact:
Lauren Rubenstein,, (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

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

Appendix: Ad spending in Competitive Senate races

  AdsEst. Cost*
Totals are from January 1, 2013, to April 24, 2014.  Numbers include broadcast television and national cable.
*Reflects estimated cost of air time only.
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS:  Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Alaska Conservation Voters422$63,050
Alaska's Energy America's Values38$4,440
American Chemistry Council1,286$70,580
American Crossroads634$50,820
American Energy Alliance656$60,050
Americans for Prosperity1,453$167,870
Mark Begich2,470$200,190
Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association340$35,970
Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce328$23,440
Judicial Crisis Network450$33,790
Put Alaska First PAC1,816$154,960
American Action Network298$131,220
Americans for Prosperity1,310$445,810
Americans United for Change39$9,570
Club for Growth467$81,500
Concerned Veterans For America548$217,310
Tom Cotton686$263,210
Government Integrity Fund - Action Network65$25,280
International Association of Fire Fighters149$55,000
Judicial Crisis Network170$56,230
National Federation of Independent Businesses118$26,450
Patriot Majority USA1,129$380,960
Mark Pryor2,797$849,850
Reclaim America PAC104$35,370
Senate Majority PAC867$248,140
Americans for Prosperity949$372,810
Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce291$141,170
League of Conservation Voters62$48,570
Senate Majority PAC615$303,380
Mark Udall82$50,010
Citizens For A Working America PAC82$83,690
Ending Spending Action Fund1,196$619,470
Phil Gingrey225$187,060
Karen Handel1$500
Jack Kingston1,906$979,750
Michelle Nunn521$325,780
David Perdue1,395$878,350
Eugene Yu66$3,990
Americans For Prosperity443$143,930
Joni Ernst29$7,550
Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce177$46,110
Mark Jacobs803$308,380
Moms Clean Air Force & Environmental Defense Fund585$155,940
Priorities for Iowa, Inc247$49,930
Senate Majority PAC988$246,460
American Chemistry Council736$157,900
Matt Bevin1,575$384,430
Kentuckians For Strong Leadership1,752$612,630
Kentucky Opportunity Coalition1,979$679,100
Mitch McConnell1,297$448,520
Patriot Majority USA680$248,440
Progressive Change Campaign Committee43$5,530
Public Campaign Action Fund & USAction948$117,640
Senate Conservatives Action666$146,360
Senate Conservatives Fund759$101,620
Senate Majority PAC469$110,630
U.S. Chamber of Commerce825$200,470
American Action Network348$176,280
Americans for Prosperity3,389$1,486,040
Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce350$118,660
Paul Hollis90$57,960
Judicial Crisis Network373$116,470
Keep Louisiana Working25$13,000
Mary Landrieu1,218$349,300
Senate Majority PAC3,100$903,020
American Sustainable Business Council Action Fund724$248,150
Americans for Prosperity2,457$1,507,060
Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce155$84,120
Terri Lynn Land132$63,370
Gary Peters567$314,060
SEIU Cope111$54,890
Senate Majority PAC944$453,550
Club for Growth1,108$278,360
Thad Cochran2,131$572,090
Chris McDaniel36$10,680
Mississippi Conservatives1,210$320,040
Senate Conservatives Action657$178,630
U.S. Chamber of Commerce96$27,810
American Crossroads521$47,790
Americans for Prosperity1,329$129,300
Steve Daines1,553$206,020
John Walsh855$90,110
New Hampshire
Americans for Prosperity109$85,860
Scott Brown16$6,690
Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies416$295,400
Ending Spending Action Fund30$11,720
Ending Spending Inc.29$17,330
League of Conservation Voters91$34,060
Senate Majority PAC105$33,470
North Carolina
60 Plus Association466$139,110
Ted Alexander13$840
American Action Network471$112,630
American Crossroads614$456,380
Americans for Prosperity5,598$2,675,070
Mark Harris30$12,810
Patriot Majority USA1,275$498,090
Senate Majority PAC3,502$1,440,050
Southern Alliance For Clean Energy1,454$655,940
Thom Tillis1,447$369,910
West Virginia
Charlotte Lane17$680
Alex Mooney30$8,930
American Energy Alliance738$243,920
Americans for Prosperity569$200,680
House Majority PAC1,144$179,650
Nick Rahall114$19,270
U.S. Chamber of Commerce266$47,770


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