Outside Groups Are Taking Over the Political Airwaves

The involvement of outside groups in campaign advertising is continuing its upward trend in the 2014 midterm election cycle, the Wesleyan Media Project reported in its first analysis of the season. Between January 1, 2013 and April 24, 2014, interest groups sponsored 59 percent of TV ads in Senate races. What’s more, 59 percent of interest group airings were sponsored by so-called “dark money” groups that are not required to disclose their donors. The project is directed by Assistant Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler, along with partners at Bowdoin College and Washington State University.

The Washington Post reported on these findings, and highlighted some extreme cases:

Not surprisingly, these groups are driving the action in the states with competitive Senate races. In North Carolina, interest groups have run 90 percent of television ads, the Wesleyan study found.

Michigan was not far behind, with outside groups sponsoring almost 87 percent of ads. In Louisiana, independent political organizations have run 85 percent of ads, while in Kentucky, they paid for 75 percent of the spots.

That means a lot of the political debate is being defined by independent players, many of whom give voters little information about their interests or the interests of their donors.  More than half of the House and Senate ads run by outside groups were sponsored by organizations that do not reveal their donors (“dark money”), according to an analysis by Wesleyan and the Center for Responsive Politics.

And few of the interest groups have a significant public profile, according to a survey by YouGov commissioned by Wesleyan.

“We’ve seen a huge rise in outside groups that are taking advantage of the relaxed campaign finance atmosphere, and the public knows nothing about them,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. In fact, she added, the public “sees candidates as self-interested, but they give these groups with generic patriotic names the benefit of doubt.”

Vox also reported on the new analysis, focusing on the remarkable number of anti-Obamacare ads–and the virtual non-existence of pro-Obamacare ads to counter them.

About 40 percent of those ads come from just one group — Americans for Prosperity, a dark money organization backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. Every single one of its political ads this cycle has criticized Obamacare, according to the study. AFP’s ads have frequently been challenged by fact-checkers.

There’s no similar map of pro-Obamacare ads, because they basically don’t exist. “Only a few ads touch the subject, preferring to, for example, reference requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions rather than reference the ACA directly,” the study’s authors write.

Erika Franklin-Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, told me that there were a few pro-Obamacare ads in Cory Booker’s New Jersey Senate primary, and in North Carolina and Louisiana. But their raw numbers are tiny, and most “are so oblique that if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t know they were referring to health care reform at all,” she said.

Check out more coverage of the study on USA TodayTime Warner Cable News and The Week.

The Wesleyan Media Project’s research was also cited in a Senate Rules Committee hearing on April 30. Read about coverage of the hearing on NPR.

Read the project’s latest analysis here.

Stay tuned. The Wesleyan Media Project will release five more analyses of campaign ad spending before the November elections.