Lesson #5: Super-PAC-funded ads did not swing the 2012 election but could be a potent force in the future. Energetic individuals and organizations are working hard to make the new world of campaign finance more transparent.
At the start of the campaign season, there were widespread fears about super PACs influencing the election. The worst scenarios, which saw these new fundraising organizations essentially taking over politics, were not realized. It’s generally agreed that $500M in super PAC-funded ads didn’t decide the election.
We’ve noted that as social media increasingly frame the election conversation, TV ads seem to be declining in influence. But that could easily change as the business of politics responds to the new media landscape and advertising itself evolves.
So campaign finance needs to be closely watched, and there’s every indication it will be. Concern about super PACs has reignited a longstanding movement to shine a brighter light on political money and the ads it supports. We talked to three leaders in the field, each coming at this challenge from a different direction.
“Super PACs have injected multi-million-dollar contributions from wealthy CEOs, billionaires, and corporate titans into the [political] system, something we haven’t seen since before the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s.” -Eliza Newlin Carney
In 2010, two Supreme Court rulings gave independent, politically active groups the green light to collect unlimited contributions from any source. Washington journalist Carney, who has been covering campaign finance for years, immediately knew that these PACs would take off and should be aggressively covered. But how to make this complex business comprehensible to the lay person?
“I started thinking about how I could write about them without making readers’ eyes glaze over,” Carney told us. “The technical, legal term for these organizations is ‘independent expenditure-only Political Action Committee’ – not something you want to write ten times in a story.”
She started calling them “super PACs” – and the phrase took off.
“Election laws are complicated, even turgid, so it can be challenging to write about them without getting bogged down. I liked ‘super’ because it was short, sharp and punchy, and seemed to capture the notion that these groups could do a lot of things that conventional PACs could not.”
In a few short years, super PACs have indeed transformed the world of political finance. They’ve forced candidates, parties, and their outside allies to raise and spend money much earlier, dramatically front-loading the campaign.
However, she notes, “their greatest impact may be in the congressional and state legislative races. That’s where a last-minute seven-figure ad buy can really tilt the outcome.”
Carney believes super PACs pose a serious threat to American politics. “The two trends unleashed by Citizens United – unrestricted spending and secret money – make for a scandal waiting to happen.”
Thus, she and many other journalists are watching the field closely. “This used to be a beat that I covered alongside a relatively small handful of other reporters. Now I’ve got plenty of company, and the political money stories coming out of major newspapers and investigative nonprofits are breaking new ground.”
Even Stephen Colbert has taken on this subject, using humor to explain the arcane, shell-game aspects of this world.
Carney, too, increased the public’s understanding of these organizations by coining the phrase that everyone now uses to talk about them. Though modest about this achievement, she says, “if the term has helped average Americans understand our political system, I’m glad ‘super PAC’ has become part of the national vocabulary.”
“The 2012 presidential race had more ads than any previous election.” -Michael Franz
Franz knows political advertising. His organization, the Wesleyan Media Project, has been tracking campaign commercials since the late 1990s. But in these post-Citizens United days, the stakes are even higher.
“With outside groups increasingly prevalent in federal elections, it is imperative that voters know to what extent wealthy groups and donors are bankrolling persuasion efforts on television,” Franz said in a Crowdwire Q & A.
As an academic research organization, the Wesleyan Media Project addresses this challenge without any partisan or ideological agenda, by providing voters with information about who is advertising and at what levels.
Using weekly data from Kantar Media/CMAG, the project codes each TV ad on nearly 100 dimensions including tone, sentiment, issues covered, and the sponsor’s identity.
“By appending our coding to the frequency of ad airings, we can then see what kinds of ads are airing where, by whom, and at what levels.”
The 2012 election has kept Franz and his colleagues busy. It’s “broken lots of records with respect to political ads. Both candidates, especially Obama, have aired an incredible number of negative ads. And outside groups, especially in support of Romney, have been extremely active. We never expected to see so many congressional candidates, and a major presidential candidate, so dependent on outside spending.”
Data from the Wesleyan Media Project have allowed political scientists to develop and test sophisticated theories about how ads work in convincing citizens to vote, and to see if ads have any effects on turnout or knowledge of key issues.
“It seems pretty clear that ads “work” in the sense that a great number of ads can move votes in your direction. But because many campaigns wind up with an equal number of ads for each side, the net effect is often zero.”
That might help explain the ads’ underwhelming influence in this presidential election.
Meanwhile, Franz believes commercials have an upside. He notes political science has reached consensus that ads do not depress voter turnout; they might even stimulate interest in the election and in some cases, raise turnout.
“Ads are attempts to speak to all voters, and they can sometimes be the only place for a Republican voter to hear what the Democratic candidate has to say, and vice versa.”
“With your TV screaming political messages at you during every commercial break, there’s a tendency to tune out. We were inspired to create something that cuts through the noise, because voters shouldn’t have that hopeless “forget it” feeling.” -Dan Siegel
Entrepreneur Siegel and his colleague Jennifer Hollett wanted to help ordinary Americans make sense of the money game while bringing more transparency to the 2012 presidential election. Their idea: A free mobile application called the Super PAC App.
“Who is behind these ads?” Siegel asked. “What are they saying, and are the claims based on facts?”
Until now, finding answers required hours of homework and probably a trip to town hall. But the Super PAC App uses audio-fingering printing technology to tag political commercials on TV or the web so users can instantly access news outlets and independent fact-checking organizations that have investigated the claims in question.
“Super PAC App won’t tell you if what the ad is claiming is ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but it will connect you with information to make that assessment yourself,” Siegel said in our interview.
The application also allows users to provide feedback on how they received the ad – if they loved it, thought it was Fair, Fishy, or a Fail. The result: a sizable new database of political advertising with crowd-sourced ratings.
These trailblazing efforts demonstrate that, even in a rapidly changing politico-media environment, a handful of smart, energetic people can substantially increase understanding of how money influences elections.
What next? It’s hard to say, but as long as money and politics are intertwined, there will be a need for watch-dogs, and the more, the better. Future initiatives might use social media to give the public a larger role in opening up this world for closer inspection.