How much did that political ad cost? It depends on who’s paying for it.
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Political ad spending can often be a sign of where candidates stand in a race and the moves they might make. A lot of that spending, of course, goes into television advertising. But how much a political TV spot costs can differ depending on who is paying for the ads.
Federal Communications Commission rules specify special pricing for the candidates themselves leading up to an election. The rules also apply to state and local races, but only if TV stations choose to carry political ads for those races.
“They’re afforded what’s called the lowest unit rate — essentially the cheapest option available from the broadcast station,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ad spending.
But that is not the case for the other groups that advertise during campaigns, such as political action committees, or PACs; so-called super PACs, trade associations and outside interest groups.
“As anyone who watches television in a swing state can tell you, there’s often lots of different names for these entities, and it’s very hard from a viewer perspective to sometimes tell the difference,” said Marshall Cohen, a partner at KMM Strategies who works with Democratic campaigns across the country.
For example, according to FCC filings, ads during the game show “Jeopardy” in Lexington, Kentucky, this week cost gubernatorial candidates Daniel Cameron and Andy Beshear $400 each for their 30-second spots. That election will take place in November, and both campaigns have been spending big on TV ads.
But Defending Bluegrass Values, the political action committee backing Beshear, paid $1,200, three times as much, to get in front of “Jeopardy’s” audience.
“Some estimates in Kentucky see it going to 3 to 1, and maybe as high as 5 to 1,” he said. “So you can really see how the dollar for the candidate goes further. And the super PAC needs more money in order to catch up.”
Super PACs are able to raise more money because unlike campaigns, most of them are not subject to contribution limits.
Kentucky’s race offers a snapshot of the ad wars that will accompany the campaigns for House and Senate seats in 2024 as well as the presidential contest. The spending balance between campaigns and outside groups is sure to shape what we’ll be stuck watching for the next year.
Franz at the Wesleyan Media Project pointed out that candidates and outside groups tend to run different kinds of ads.
“We’ve seen that evidence somewhat consistently across time,” said Franz. “Candidates feel compelled to do a mix of things like attacking a candidate but also promoting themselves. And the super PACs don’t feel that same need.”
Federal Election Commission rules prohibit super PACs from coordinating with campaigns they support, so they often rely on attacking the candidates they don’t support. This can make the overall political advertising environment seem a lot more negative.
Additional reporting by Maya Marchel Hoff
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