Outside Group Involvement in GOP Contest Skyrockets Compared to 2008

Romney Advertising Dominates in Florida; General Election Advertising Sets Furious Pace

(MIDDLETOWN, CT –) The overall number of GOP presidential ads on the airwaves this election year is comparable with 2008, but who is paying for them so far has changed significantly.  The influence of SuperPACs in the race for the 2012 GOP nomination is clear, with a more than 1600 percent increase in interest-group sponsored ads aired as compared to 2008.

In the first presidential election cycle following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC, interest group involvement in the presidential air war has skyrocketed from 3 percent of all ads aired in the 2008 Republican nomination race to nearly half (44 percent) of all airings. Table 1 shows the total number of GOP presidential ads (through Jan. 25) was just shy of 70,000 airings on broadcast television and national cable in both years. Candidate-sponsored ads, which made up 97 percent of the total in 2008, declined to 56 percent of the total this year.  An estimated $28.9M has been spent to date, a substantial drop from 2008.


Table 1: Advertising in GOP Presidential Primaries*


One reason the number of GOP candidate ads has fallen so much since 2008 is that the Romney campaign is not shelling out the cash it did the first time he ran for president. (He was on the air in Iowa for much of 2007, but he did not start advertising this time around until December 2011).  Table 2 compares the campaigns with the largest number of candidate-sponsored airings across the last two GOP primaries.


Table 2: Front-Runner Candidate-Sponsored Ad Totals in the 2008 and 2012 GOP Presidential Primaries*


Even though Romney has not been on the airwaves as much as he was in 2008, his campaign and its allies have dominated the airwaves in Florida, airing almost 13,000 ads on broadcast television across the state, as of Wednesday, the 25th (Table 3).  Gingrich and his interest-group allies have aired only about 200 spots, with Paul and Santorum out of the broadcast television game.


Table 3: Spot Count in Florida Primary*


“One reason we’ve seen the Florida polls shift in Romney’s favor over the past few days, when the national polls have not, is that his message has dominated the paid airwaves in the Sunshine State,” noted Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University and director of the Wesleyan Media Project.  “Gingrich—and Paul and Santorum—have had a much more difficult time making themselves heard.”


In South Carolina, however, Romney’s ad advantage was not nearly as great (Table 4).  Romney and interest-group allies aired about 8,000 ads, compared to 5,000 for Santorum, about 4,500 for Gingrich and 3,000 for Paul.  All candidates benefited from sympathetic interest groups airing spots on their behalf; Romney and Gingrich benefited the most while Paul benefited the least.


Table 4: Spot Count in South Carolina Primary*


The outside group most heavily involved in the Republican nomination race has been Restore Our Future, Inc., a pro-Romney group that has spent an estimated $8 million to air over 13,500 spots on his behalf in media markets in Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona and Michigan (Table 5).  Make Us Great Again, a pro-Perry group, spent an estimated $2.2 million on 4200 spots aired in Iowa and South Carolina, while Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich group, has been involved in advertising almost as heavily.  Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow has aired 11 spots on broadcast stations and national cable.


Table 5: Top Groups Involved in GOP Nomination Race*


Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has aired over 5,000 ads at an estimated cost of $1.4M, targeting residents of 25 markets in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  Table 6 displays the top ten markets of airings.

“Advertising market placement is like a tell, and it is clear that the Obama campaign views these battleground states as most important at this stage of the game,” said Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College and director of the Wesleyan Media Project.


Table 6: Top Ten Markets Airing Obama Campaign Ads*


However, the Obama campaign is not the only one already advertising for the general election (Table 7).  Americans for Prosperity has aired over 5,000 spots in battleground state markets, while Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies has aired over 4,200 spots in similar markets.  The American Petroleum Institute also aired around 1,500 spots.

“I can’t remember a time when so many groups were so involved in general election advertising so early,” noted Erika Franklin Fowler assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “An underappreciated fact about this year’s contest is that outside groups are spending more money per ad than candidates, which makes examining the balance of actual ads voters are seeing very crucial when attempting to tease out their influence.”

Table 7: Top Non-Candidate General Election Spenders*


Data reported here do not cover local cable buys, only broadcast television and national cable buys.  All cost estimates are precisely that: estimates.

The Wesleyan Media Project provides real-time tracking and analysis of all political television advertising in real-time. 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.

The Wesleyan Media Project is supported by grants from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Wesleyan University.  Data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project using Academiclip, a web-based coding tool.  All spending amounts are estimates of broadcast and national cable spots.

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:
David Pesci at 860-685-5612 or dpesci@wesleyan.edu
Erika Franklin Fowler at 860-685-3407 or efowler at wesleyan.edu
Michael M. Franz at 207-798-4318 or mfranz at bowdoin.edu, or
Travis N. Ridout at 509-335-2264 or tnridout at wsu.edu


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