To read the news coverage of late, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re headed into a campaign in which super PACs will determine the winner. Ten million dollars from Sheldon Adelson here, $1 million from Bill Maher there, and it’s easy to conclude that these new organizations will have the biggest say in the identity of the next president and control of Congress.
But it’s not quite so simple.
In fact, the realities of campaign advertising today still put a premium on candidates themselves — and specifically, on their fundraising.
As a rule of thumb, super PACs and national party committees pay significantly more for ad space (on average, about 40 to 50 percent more) than candidates do, meaning their dollar doesn’t go nearly as far on TV. And in a crowded media market, that markup can reach as high as three, four or even five times as much as the candidates when the super PACs and party committees have to pay extra to bump existing ads off the air.
The Arizona special election on Tuesday is a good example of this ad reality.
Super PACs and the national party committees on each side spent more than Rep.-elect Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) did in the Tucson-based district formerly held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Outside groups on the left and right spent nearly $1 million a piece on ads, compared to about $900,000 for Barber.
But because Barber was paying a lower rate, he wound up airing significantly more Gross Ratings Points (GRP) — a technical term which measures the reach of the ads. (An ad with 1,000 points behind it means that the average person will see the ad 10 times in a week.)
Even as the House Majority super PAC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee combined to narrowly outspend Barber, he was able to air 8,700 GRPs compared to 5,700 GRPs for the two outside groups combined, according to numbers provided by a Democratic media buyer.
A second, and perhaps less important distinction: party committees and super PACs are forbidden from working with the candidate on the ads, and candidates can’t appear in super PAC ads. (Party committees can technically coordinate with the candidates to a very limited extent, but the vast majority of their spending is independent of the candidate.)
So these candidate ads, by featuring the candidate him- or herself, can be more impactful and more on-message than the outside groups’ ads.
Of course, super PAC ads can also be more impactful because they have fewer qualms about going negative. But it’s always nice to have the candidate involved in the ad, especially if the candidate is a strong one. And look no further than the Arizona special election for an example of a strong candidate against a weak one. (Republicans bemoaned the inadequacies of Jesse Kelly and cheered — privately — when he decided against running for the seat this fall.)
So what does this all mean for the 2012 election?
While it’s quite possible that super PACs and national party committees will spend more on ads than the candidates themselves this cycle — and so far, that has been the case — that fact doesn’t mean that their messages will necessarily dominate the airwaves.
The balance in advertising between candidates and outside groups has shifted sharply toward the outside groups since the Citizens United Supreme Court case paving the way for super PACs, and it may continue to move in that direction. But that doesn’t mean that candidate fundraising and advertising don’t matter. In fact in most races, as in Arizona, it’s still probable that the candidates will be airing a majority of the ads.
Democrats argue that this is a good thing for them, since their House and Senate candidates have been raising more money than Republicans in a lot of competitive races.
Perhaps more notable, though, is that super PAC money in a lot of key Senate races won’t go as far as candidate money.
Case in point: Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) went up with a $250,000 ad buy in the Indiana Senate race this week, which is far less than the $620,000 buy just launched by the GOP-leaning American Crossroads super PAC. But in reality, the two buys are more similar in size than they appear, because Donnelly paid a lower rate.
That said, having a well-funded super PAC eye you for defeat is a problem that nobody wants — and it’s a problem that didn’t exist four years ago — so the GOP’s super PAC advantage still looms very large over the 2012 election.
Just maybe not quite as large as the dollar amounts suggest.