Wesleyan Media Project Already Shaping 2012 News Coverage

Erika Franklin Fowler is co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

Much like the primaries for both sides in 2008, this race looks to continue its jockeying right into June. But through it there is one resource that provides some clarity, at least when it comes to the money being spent on campaign ads: The Wesleyan Media Project.

Created in 2010, The Wesleyan Media Project is a nonpartisan, academically-based effort designed to television track advertising in all federal elections. It is directed by Erika Franklin Fowler, assistant professor of government. The co-directors include Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College, and Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University.

The project’s first 2012 release came in late January and confirmed what many had suspected: the 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission has dramatically increased the amount of spending by outside groups and unions in this year’s presidential election. From late 2011 until the last week of January alone, outside group spending in the Republican primary was up more than 1,600 percent from the same period in 2008, rising from $1.1 million to $15.2 million.

“I can’t remember a time when so many groups were so involved in general election advertising so early,” noted Franklin Fowler. “Everyone wants to talk about spending this year, and spending is important but it’s not the whole story.  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.”

Interestingly, the overall amount of dollars being spent is down from 2008, at least thus far. Franklin Fowler suggests this may be a factor of the campaigns and parties ceding certain strategies to the PACs and outside groups, and in part because the Romney campaign has been a bit more disciplined with its money than in 2008.

“Romney was on the air in Iowa for much of 2007, but he did not start advertising this time around until December, 2011,” she says.

She adds, however, that in the long term PAC and union spending is likely driving up costs.

“The fact that we have only one presidential primary going on this year instead of two has something to do with the decrease in cost because there is not as much demand for airtime,” she says.

The most recent study by The Wesleyan Media Project has once again generated widespread national media attention, including features on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” multiple stories in The Washington Post, Politico, The New York Times, as well as coverage by ABC News, CBS News and dozens of other news outlets.

Much of the coverage citing the project’s data focused on outside money in the Republican primaries, but The Wesleyan Media Project also led reporting on two surprise big spenders early in the primary season: the AFSCME Union, which was among the top 10 outside spenders, buying 275 ad spots over just a few weeks, and the Obama campaign, which ran 5,000 ads in several key swing states over just six days in January. The latter was unprecedented for a presidential incumbent who was not being challenged in primaries and may indicate that the Obama campaign is much more concerned about the closeness of the fall election than their public stance is revealing.

“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 Franz.

The next study by The Wesleyan Media Project will be released in late March and will be available at its press release site for public viewing. More studies will be released throughout the election season, including a new series of studies on YouTube ads. All of the project’s researchers believe it will be an unprecedented race in terms of money spent, not just through outside groups but also by the national parties and candidates themselves.

“The 2010 election was an historic year for political advertising, but with the Oval Office on the line, we expect 2012 to pulverize the 2010 records,” says Franklin Fowler.

The Wesleyan Media Project is funded by grants from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Wesleyan University.