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Analysis: The Myths Of The Campaign Advertising Air War

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

Christie Political Team Is Raising The Stakes

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — For months, deep-pocketed donors have had a place to send unlimited contributions to Jeb Bush and to Scott Walker.

Those who similarly wanted to support New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who’s falling behind his GOP rivals in the race for money as well as in the polls, have not. But Christie’s political team announced on Thursday that it is catching up.

It has hired three veterans of former President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign as well as seasoned fundraisers with ties to Christie, and has unveiled a super PAC, America Leads, that will begin accepting unlimited sums in support of Christie’s likely presidential bid.

A key figure now in the mix is Phil Cox, who served as executive director of the Republican Governors Association, which raised $106 million when Christie was the group’s chairman last year.

The announcements come just a few weeks before the April 15 deadline for committees to report on fundraising with the Federal Election Commission.

Those filings will show how Christie is stacking up against other potential candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination, including Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, and Walker, the Wisconsin governor. Both have been gaining in recent polls.

“In a competitive Republican primary the initial fight is over the support of the party’s mega donors,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “You need a PAC and a SuperPAC and top people running each of them in order to get their support because all of them are being courted by your opponents.

“If you don’t show the same desire and organization to get up and running,” he continued, “they may well think that you’re not ready to move ahead. So you have to move quickly.”

Michael DuHaime, Christie’s top political strategist, confirmed that Leadership Matters for America, the political committee that’s hiring staff and raising money to finance the governor’s travel as he considers running, hired Cary Evans, a regional political director on former President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign who has a lot of experience working in Nevada; Brian Jones, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee who worked on the last three Republican presidential campaigns; and Kevin Shuvalov, who worked for Bush in Iowa in 2000 and 2004.

The SuperPAC was established on Feb. 23 and has a Virginia mailing address, according to paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission by Timothy Koch, a partner at Koch & Hoos, a political accounting and compliance firm.

Cox is serving as the SuperPAC’s director. Paige Hahn, a former finance director at the Republican Governors Association, is the group’s finance director, and Meredith O’Rourke, finance director of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s campaign, is working as a fundraising consultant.

Cox said he got to know Christie through his work at the RGA last year when there were 36 gubernatorial contests.

“I worked closely with Governor Christie at the RGA and saw firsthand what a strong, effective leader he is for both our party and our nation,” Cox said in a statement. “I’ve established this Super PAC because it’s time for America to lead again, and I believe Governor Christie is exactly the kind of strong leader we need at this critical point in our nation’s history.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported the creation of the SuperPAC and new staff hires on Thursday, the same day Bloomberg News reported it had a list of 41 people who have donated to Leadership Matters for America.

Bloomberg did not have the amounts contributed, but donations to that committee are capped at $5,000 under campaign finance laws.

Among those who contributed are the Texas oilman Al Hill Jr., whose family inspired the television show Dallas, and the St. Louis financier Jeffrey Fox, son of an ambassador in President George W. Bush’s administration, according to Bloomberg. Other donors include Jim Klote, a fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign; New York investor Nick Loeb; and Greg Brown, chairman of the Rutgers board of governors and CEO of Motorola Solutions, according to the report.

Christie’s positive ratings have plunged in New Jersey, and he had one of the lowest ratings among GOP presidential hopefuls in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. It found that 57 percent of Republican primary voters said they could not vote for Christie for president, compared with 32 percent who said they could. In terms of voter support, Christie ranked 11th out of 14 potential GOP candidates. Florida Senator Marco Rubio had the highest number of GOP voters who said they could back him, 56 percent compared with 26 percent who said they could not. He was followed by Walker, with 53 percent saying they could vote for him and 17 percent who said they could not.

DuHaime said that Leadership Matters for America has held several successful fundraisers in New York, Connecticut, Florida and California and that more are planned in the coming weeks.

“Fundraising is going very well,” he said. “Governor Christie is attracting financial support from prominent leaders all around the country.”

The committee is holding a breakfast with Christie in Bernardsville, N.J., on Monday for a small group of so-called bundlers, who commit to raising $25,000 to $100,000 before the end of the month. Bundlers are fundraisers who can gather contributions from many individuals and present that sum to a campaign.

The Texas real estate developer Ray Washburne, who is serving as Leadership Matters’ finance chairman, is holding an event for Christie in Houston this month, and another fundraiser in Philadelphia on March 25 is being hosted by U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA), and Bob Asher, a Republican National Committee member from Pennsylvania, DuHaime confirmed.

Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot who has been urging Christie to run since 2011, hosted a meet and greet in Jupiter, Fla., on Wednesday to introduce the governor to potential supporters. Langone hosted a similar event in New York City earlier this year, though neither event was a fundraiser.

Photo: Michael Vadon via Flickr

Likely 2016 Presidential Candidates Put Money To Work Through Their PACs

By Kurtis Lee, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

For New Hampshire’s Republican Party, the swarm of likely presidential candidates about to blanket the state has been preceded by another much-appreciated influx: money.

There was the recent contribution of $10,000 from Jeb Bush’s leadership political action committee, Right to Rise, ahead of a visit this week to the Granite State, his first since announcing he is exploring a run for the White House. Months earlier, $5,000 each came from leadership PACs established by Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, two other presidential prospects eager to make friends in the state that will hold the first 2016 primary.

“We’re a pivotal state in the election process, so it’s no surprise candidates are showing interest here,” said Jennifer Horn, the state GOP chairwoman.

At this stage of the 2016 campaign, the leadership PAC has become a vehicle of choice for presidential candidates. Common among members of Congress, but a relatively new device for those not holding federal office, such PACs enable prospective candidates to build donor lists, travel to early primary states and court future support by contributing to local officials and state parties, without having to formally declare a candidacy.

“It can be used as a warm-up to the main attraction,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine who has done extensive research on campaign finance.

Unlike independent SuperPACs, which can receive unlimited contributions, leadership PACs can accept $5,000 per year from individual donors or other political action committees. Limits to how much these PACs can donate vary from $10,000 to state parties to about $5,000 to candidates per election. In the two years leading up to November’s midterm election, 496 leadership PACs spent $47 million on federal candidates, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Money raised by the PACs cannot go toward the candidates’ formal campaign, although the currying of influence in early or influential states will certainly be beneficial.

Last year, Reinventing a New Direction, or RANDPAC, established by Paul in 2011, contributed a combined $15,000 to the GOP in early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Meanwhile, Rubio’s Reclaim America donated a total of $10,000 to state parties in Iowa and New Hampshire. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, launched his political action committee, RickPAC, last summer and gave $10,000 to the New Hampshire GOP and $5,000 to South Carolina Republicans.

The money sent to influential politicians has been equally sizable. Bush announced he contributed about $31,200 to House and Senate candidates from early voting states.

“These are all candidates Governor Bush is supportive of and who are up for reelection in 2016,” spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said. “Obviously they are in critical states, but it’s important to note that these are just the first round of contributions.”

Before the November election, RANDPAC gave about $14,300 to federal candidates from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina; Reclaim America handed out about $22,000 and RickPAC $17,900 to candidates in those states. The Jobs, Growth and Freedom Fund, the leadership PAC of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, gave $30,000 to federal GOP candidates from those states. These totals do not include the tens of thousands that the PACs also handed out through independent expenditures to support candidates such as Joni Ernst of Iowa, who won a competitive Senate contest, and Scott Brown, who failed to unseat Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

Candidates and state parties in places like California and Texas, where primary voters cast ballots much later, have seen almost no donations from these PACs. (Bush is the only candidate to release tallies from this year; in odd years, PACs have the option of filing quarterly or semiannually.)

Because of federal limits, the sums given to candidates are relatively small compared with the millions these PACs rake in. In the last two years, RANDPAC raised about $3.7 million, and Reclaim America brought in $3.9 million — two of the highest sums of any Senate leadership PACs.

“Senator Paul is proud to have crisscrossed the country in the 2014 cycle on behalf of his ideas and of candidates nationwide,” Doug Stafford, executive director of RANDPAC, said in an email. “The PAC also built a nationwide donor and activist network to support those endeavors.”

Much of the cash raised by the PACs has gone toward travel, fundraising, consulting, polling and research, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Expenses for RANDPAC included $4,983 in equipment at an Arlington, Va., Apple store and $2,050 in hotel fees at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip.

“This is a good way to build name identification in critical states that helps down the road,” said Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “And when looking at the contributions, it’s clear that they’re targeted toward certain candidates in certain states.”

Republicans may have a more active palette of leadership PACs, because the party has far more presidential prospects than Democrats have, but they are not alone in their use.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who is exploring a presidential run, has made significant contributions through his leadership PAC, O’Say Can You See.

Before the November election, his PAC handed out $24,500 in Iowa and New Hampshire to Democratic organizations and federal candidates. The Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has not set up a leadership PAC, but a SuperPAC that is trying to rally support for her has given the maximum of $10,000 each to the Democratic parties in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Because it is governed by rules different from those of leadership PACs, Ready for Hillary can receive unlimited donations. It has raised $12.9 million since it formed in 2013.

Ready for Hillary and the various leadership PACs also serve another role in these early stages of the race: collecting lists of supporters, which they can then turn over to the campaigns for a price.

Corrado, the Colby College professor, said the PACs served as the architecture for a political campaign that, for the nominee, could ultimately cost more than $1 billion.

“It makes for an easy transition when it’s time to actually get moving and hit the trail daily,” he said. “Those lists and established contacts will play heavily when it comes to raising money.”

Photo: U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Who Says Money In Politics Doesn’t Buy Influence?

By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register (TNS)

One recent day, my newspaper had two front-page stories related to money and politics. One was about financial contributions made from the political action committees of prospective presidential candidates to Iowa office-seekers of the same party. Another reported that former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been appointed to the board of the corporation planning the controversial Bakken pipeline.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled money in politics is free “speech,” and doesn’t buy influence. But both of those stories offered small examples of how it might. In the first, potential presidential candidate Rand Paul wants Iowa operatives in his camp, so he donates some of his PAC funds — a thousand here or there — to their campaigns. They in turn may feel grateful enough to repay the favor by talking Paul up to their supporters.

In the second case, prospective presidential candidate Perry gets a direct financial stake in a controversial oil-pipeline proposal. The Bakken pipeline, which would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois, is widely opposed by environmental and other groups. But by investing in Perry and his campaign, the company could bank on having a friend in the White House to create a climate favorable for such projects. In 2012, the head of Energy Transfer Partners gave a quarter million dollars to a SuperPAC for Perry. And now Perry has a seat on its board.

A Perry spokesman said Perry won’t be publicly promoting the pipeline, but he doesn’t have to. His board presence is endorsement enough.

Traditional PACs are chicken feed compared with the filet mignon influence SuperPACs can buy. The first allow a group of people with a common goal — say, reducing environmental regulations — to donate up to $5,000 to a candidate in each round of an election campaign, and $15,000 a year to a national political party. But SuperPACs — authorized by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Speechnow vs. FEC — can raise and spend unlimited amounts of corporate, union or private dollars to promote or discredit a candidate in a federal election. They just can’t donate directly to the candidate or party.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that in 2014 elections, 1,300 SuperPACs had raised more than $695 million. They ranged from the liberal Senate Majority PAC, which raised $67 million, to the conservative American Crossroads PAC, which raised $23 million. Ten billion dollars were spent in the 2012 election cycle — combining the presidential, local, state and regional races — according to national journalist/author John Nichols. But for all that spending, Nichols told a Des Moines audience, 2014 had the lowest turnout in midterm elections since 1942.

Nichols, the Washington correspondent for the progressive Nation magazine and co-author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America was brought to Iowa by the Quaker American Friends Service Committee to kick off a project provocatively titled “Governing Under the Influence.” It aims to focus attention in Iowa and New Hampshire, the leadoff presidential selection states, on the distorting impact of money in politics, enabled by Supreme Court rulings.

In a rousing speech in the basement of a United Methodist Church, Nichols said most Americans feel too overwhelmed to know what to do. Rather than motivate voters, the excess negativity of political ads causes many not to vote. But Nichols maintains that Iowans get more one-on-one time with presidential candidates than anyone else and should use that to grill them. “Iowans should be saying, ‘How much money have you taken from this interest?'” and how do they stay independent of it, he said. He suggested everyone ask the candidates if they agree with the Supreme Court that corporations are people, and if unlimited spending to influence elections is protected free speech.

Ultimately, those rulings can only be overridden by a constitutional amendment. But history, notes Nichols, was filled with people organizing in response to an injustice and getting the constitution changed — like the 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote, the 13th amendment (1865), abolishing slavery and the 15th amendment (1870) giving black people voting rights.

It takes either a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress or in two-thirds of state legislatures to amend the constitution. That must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. But some states have begun the process. Montana and Colorado voted differently for president in 2012, but both voted to amend the constitution to curb money in elections.

It’s a long and laborious process. The 27th amendment, on congressional pay, was submitted in 1789, but not ratified until 1992. On the other hand, the 26th amendment, giving 18-year-olds voting rights, took only three months to be ratified in 1971. Most Americans understood the absurdity of drafting young people who couldn’t even vote. I hope most Americans also understand the absurdity of politicians using their office to return a debt to the deep pockets that helped get them elected.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr