Less than a week before the midterm elections, political TV advertising is setting records for both volume and negativity.
Total political ad spending will reach $6.75 billion in 2018, research firm PQ Media predicts, with about half of that going to television. A study released Tuesday by the Wesleyan Media Project finds the number of congressional and gubernatorial ads has spiked 59% over levels of the previous midterm, in 2014. During the current season of quarterly earnings reports, media executives have marveled at the gains. All media companies with TV assets, but especially local station owners like Sinclair Broadcast Group, Fox Television Stations, Nexstar and others, have the wind at their backs.
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The same Wesleyan study, though, highlights a couple of complications to the boom-times narrative. The number of negative ads, it found, has soared 61% over the previous mid-term in 2014. And dark money, while a scourge of Democrats seeking to push through campaign finance reform, is flooding into Democratic campaign at rates several times higher than that of Republicans.
With a wide range of races considered toss-ups and Democrats looking to blunt the momentum of President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, November 6 has often been described as the most consequential Election Day in decades. The effect of the landmark Citizens United decision in 2010, which protects the rights of outside interests to funnel money into campaigns, is being fully reflected in the 2018 numbers.
Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser cites the election windfall as the lone bright spot for traditional media companies, at time when they face myriad other challenges. “If there is one positive trend at present, it is the strength of political advertising, helping station owners in battleground states in the upcoming election,” he wrote in a recent report. Steve Burke, head of NBCUniversal, hailed the election surge during Comcast’s third-quarter earnings call. “Political is way up,” he said. “We’re having a very very strong political season. Looks more like a presidential year than a midterm year.”
Owners of local TV station groups, whose businesses have been buffeted by dramatic changes in the habits of both viewers and advertisers, are benefiting to a much larger extent than they expected. One group, E.W. Scripps, recently estimated that its haul from this year’s midterms will soar more than 50% over the tally in the previous midterm in 2014, which hit $75 million.
While the election boom is being celebrated in media circles, Eric Haggstrom, a junior forecasting analyst at eMarketer, believes political spending could crowd out other TV advertisers and limit the overall benefit to ad coffers. The blitz of political spending is “driving up prices during the election season and causing other advertisers to hold back spend. So a big increase in political ad spend won’t necessarily yield a big increase in all ad spend.”
The source of the spending is also a noteworthy development this year. While Democrats have long railed at the “Swiftboat” tactics of Republicans, who often tap PACs and other sources to undermine opponents, the pendulum seems to have swung. Almost four in every 10 ads from groups (38.4%) come from dark money organizations, according to the Wesleyan study, and the funding tilts toward Democrats. About 41% of House ads from dark money groups are for Democrats, compared with 28% for Republicans, with the Senate leaning Democrats by a 43% to 39% margin.
“In past cycles, the Republicans have tended to benefit more from dark money. But the pattern has shifted in 2018,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Democrats as a party are getting a lot of dark money support at the same that they are arguing for more campaign finance reform in this area.”
While there is no definitive cause-and-effect link between the rise of outside money and the negative tone of ads, the Wesleyan researchers say the intensity of the Trump era has taken things to a new level. While the 2010 mid-terms, which were marked by the rise of the Tea Party and staunch opposition to President Obama and his efforts to overhaul the health care system, saw a high level of negativity, the current race’s volume has gained steam in recent weeks. Nearly 569,000 attack ads have aired since Labor Day, eclipsing the 2010 record of nearly 450,000, the study found.
“With control of Congress up for grabs and more competitive races, we generally expect campaign activity and negativity to increase,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, “but the amount of negative ads – and sheer amount of advertising on television more generally in 2018 – is really stunning.”
Since you read this far, feel free to sample a taste of the season in this ad for New Jersey Senate hopeful Bob Hugin, who is running against Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez. While the spot was funded by Hugin’s own campaign, not an outside group, tonally it suits this acidulous year. Heavily relying on images of disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, it focuses on a “signed affadavit” by the FBI, rehashing debunked reports that he visited an underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.
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