Broadcast media still dominates the world of political campaign ads, which are financed more than ever by interest groups that will play an increasing role in the 2012 presidential election, according to media reports issued this week.

A Free Press report — “Citizens Inundated” (.pdf) — released this week states that television ads offer a formula for success: Candidates who spent more on a “campaign for a congressional seat in 2008 won the race more than nine out of 10 times” and “spending on negative ads is particularly effective.”

This certainly seems to have been Mitt Romney’s strategy in Florida’s recent GOP primary, where, according to The New York Times, “negative ads were so prevalent … that they accounted for 92 percent of all campaign commercials that ran.”

“Broadcast television is our most influential communications medium,” the “Citizens Inundated” report adds. “According to a Pew Research Center survey, 78 percent of American viewers report getting their news from local TV on a typical day — more than the number that relies on newspapers, radio or the Internet.”

“Citizens Inundated” adds that by January 2012 the Federal Elections Commission “identified nearly 300 ‘Super PACs’ that have arisen in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision,” and by November 2012 “these groups will have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into slick commercials intended to influence — and frequently misinform — the American public.”

The report adds that during the 2012 election season, “candidates, political parties and independent groups will spend up to $3.3 billion to buy a TV,” from commercial broadcast media companies.

A Wesleyan Media Project report issued this week indicates that “the overall number of GOP presidential ads on the airwaves in this election year is comparable with 2008, but who is paying for them so far has changed significantly.”

The Wesleyan report shows that in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries, about 2.6 percent of political ads were paid for by interest groups, while in 2012, out of the 69,000-plus ads aired so far, almost 44 percent have been paid for by interest groups — to the tune of at least $15 million.

The report shows that from January 2011 through January 2012 Romney’s campaign aired almost 13,000 TV ads and Newt Gingrich aired 210 in Florida. Over half of Romney’s ads and 196 of Gingrich’s ads were financed by interest groups.

The report highlights that in South Carolina, where Gingrich won the GOP primary, “Romney and interest-group allies” paid to air about 8,000 TV ads while Gingrich paid to air about 4,500.

“Restore Our Future, Inc., a pro-Romney group that has spent an estimated $8 million to air over 13,500 spots on his behalf in media markets in Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan,” is the most active group in the 2012 GOP nomination race, according to the report.

President Obama’s reelection campaign has aired over the same period at least 5,000 ads “at an estimated cost of $1.4M, targeting residents of 25 markets in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.”

The Obama reelection campaign is not alone:

  • The conservative group Americans for Prosperity has aired over 5,000 spots in battleground state markets.
  • The conservative Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies has aired over 4,200 spots in similar markets.
  • The American Petroleum Institute also aired around 1,500 spots.

According to the “Citizens Inundated” report, very little political coverage (in 2010, an average of 30 seconds in a 30-minute broadcast of local TV news was dedicated to government issues) and the lack of sustained efforts by the FCC, “tasked with defending the interests of viewers,” threaten “Americans’ most important act in a democracy: voting.”

Kantar Media points out that “political analysts usually discuss advertising’s impact on a presidential race in terms of states and dollars,” but “this is an incorrect framework”:

First, the battlefields are media markets — not states. Markets do not adhere to state lines. Florida voters, for example, live in 10 different markets. Pricing of commercial time differs from one to the next.

Citizens Inundated” adds that while TV viewers will see up to 12 negative political ads an hour in the 2012 election season, “what you’re much less likely to see is news coverage that explains who these ads’ sponsors really are, what interests they represent and whether they are telling the truth.”

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