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By Ken Goldstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

The first significant shots of the 2016 presidential television ad air war — likely to cost $2 billion or more by November 2016 — have been fired. The largest expenditures to date have been the multimillion-dollar buys each from New Day for America, the super PAC supporting John Kasich, and the Clinton campaign. Over the weekend, news broke of an impending $10 million buy from Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush’s candidacy, to be distributed among several early states.

For a media world that’s desperate to know how the war might go, these early blasts — measured in dollars — often take on an outsize significance. But it’s all too easy to misinterpret these early buys, and therefore misunderstand the battle.

The TV ad market is dizzyingly complex. Just looking at the amount of dollars spent in total or even in a particular market tells us little about what messages are reaching which targeted voters at what frequency — the key question that should concern political observers, practitioners and analysts. In fact, political advertising may be one aspect of politics where following the money isn’t the key to understanding.

Fogging the battlefield are numerous rules and pricing anomalies. First of all, different advertisers pay different amounts for spots on the same program — even spots in the same commercial pod. For example, within 60 days of a general election, and within 45 days of a primary, by federal law, candidates for federal office are guaranteed what’s called the lowest-unit-rate for buying advertising. And even outside the so-called LUR window, there can be enormous differences in the rates paid by candidates and groups for the exact same advertising. Take, for example, some recent buys on the only broadcast station in the crucial early primary state of New Hampshire, WMUR in Manchester.

During the first week of August, media buyers representing both candidates and groups ordered spots on ABC’s top rated “Good Morning America.” On Aug. 5, the Christie campaign paid $700 for a 30-second spot and Clinton’s campaign paid a proportional $1,400 for a 60-second spot. America Leads (Christie’s PAC) and New Day for America (Kasich’s PAC) also aired spots on “Good Morning America” that day, but paid almost three times as much — $2,000 for a 30-second spot from America Leads and $4,000 for a 60-second spot for New Day for America. Non-candidate money from groups, as a rule, buys much less ad than the same amount spent by the campaigns proper.

This was certainly the case in 2012 when, pretty much across the board, the Democrats were outspent by the GOP in the presidential race. But a much higher percentage of Republican money came from super PACs and other groups. As a result, the GOP spent more, but got less. Amazingly, the Romney campaign actually compounded this problem. Although Romney’s ad people, like their counterparts in Chicago, had the legal right to buy spots at the LUR, they often did not take full advantage of this right. Wanting particular (and more costly) guarantees of when their spots would air, the Romney campaign often paid more for the exact same advertising buys.

Journalists are rarely precise about the time periods and exact markets of the ad buys about which they tweet — $1 million spent in Cedar Rapids in one month is a lot, $1 million spent in five months targeting New Hampshire with purchases on pricey Boston stations, not so much.

The media obsession with ad dollars has been driven by the availability of what political professionals call the “competitive.” As Elizabeth Wilner, head of Kantar Media CMAG writes in the Cook Political Report, “Every week during the thick and even the thin of a presidential race (or any other race featuring TV ads), dozens to hundreds of e-mails fly between TV stations, local cable systems, ad sales rep firms and political media buyers informing the group of bids for airtime — not just their own but everyone else’s.”

This practice would be unethical and probably illegal if the stations were providing Budweiser’s ad agency with information on where Miller’s agency had just ordered advertising. It, however, has been the norm in politics for the last few election cycles. Media buyers process the information on what spot time has been ordered and use if for strategic purposes to track where their enemies — and increasingly their friends with whom they cannot coordinate — are buying ads. This information, provided as a service by the TV stations, is now also increasingly being passed along — sometimes even sold — by partisan media buyers to members of the news media, who then report the ad buys with bullet point after bullet point of dollar figures.

Some of the reporting around the competitive can also be foggy. For example, recent media coverage of a Rubio campaign order clearly used “competitive information” and spoke of the wisdom of an early buy that supposedly advantaged his campaign with early pricing and guarantees placements. But, in fact, rates are not yet available for many of the times that the Rubio campaign supposedly guaranteed placement. Unlike airlines, TV stations never really run out of seats and you can get bumped while about to board the plane if someone decides they want to pay more for the seat. Ad time is never really guaranteed (unless a campaign pays a very high guaranteed price) and ads don’t air at a certain price until they air at that price.

This is why the raw numbers of ad purchases don’t necessarily mean that much. They’re like partial unweighted survey data after the first night of calling in a political poll.

Still, even with all these warnings about measuring the political ad air war, the ad activity now, as well as the Clinton buy over the last couple of weeks, is worth our attention. To understand why, let’s remember that scholarly work on political communication — not to mention common sense — suggests that advertising should have a greater impact when people are less familiar with the candidates. Attitudes are more fluid and when one side has an advantage in communicating their message.

In fact, the dominant view of academics is that in general elections the partisan predispositions of voters and underlying economic factors either favor a candidate or they don’t and no amount of campaign spending or television advertising can change attitudes and outcomes. The skepticism also rests on the argument that even if such advertising had the potential to change entrenched minds and outweigh the effects of economic conditions, there would need to be measurable differences between the competing advertising campaigns — something not often seen in competitive battles.

But in primary battles, voters don’t have their partisanship to use as a shortcut and at this stage in the primary season, many Republican still are not familiar with their party’s contestants. Furthermore, unlike what we will see in battleground states in the general election and in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina as their nomination contests draw nearer, most candidates are not on TV spots, and television is not flooded with political advertising. In other words, if advertising is ever going to have an effect it is going to be now, when attitudes are soft and the air war can be one-sided.

While the effects are seldom huge, early advertising campaigns can provide important preliminary evidence or be a “tell” for the potential effectiveness of a campaign’s message. For instance, the pro-Kasich super PAC’s $2 million buy certainly seems have moved his numbers and helped get him in the conversation in New Hampshire — though the caveat should be quickly added that the nomination is a very, very long way.

With very little paid media opposition, it will be interesting to see if the buys on behalf of Jeb Bush resonate with Republican primary voters this fall. Even more interesting to political observers is the impact of the Clinton campaign’s ad buy, which has been up on the air unopposed for more than two weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire. Both campaigns are well-financed and staffed with top strategists; assessing the impact of these first buys will be our first evidence about whether the dogs will eat the dog food.

Photo: Ads, from which this still was taken, by the John Kasich-supporting SuperPAC New Day for America, recently aired on “Good Morning America.” New Day for America/YouTube


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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

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As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template

In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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