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One Neat Trick to Reduce the Influence of Super PACs

A longstanding law gives campaigns, but not Super PACs, discounted TV ad rates. It should be expanded to digital platforms.

September 17, 2018

Even in a campaign world so energized that every House ratings change about the third district of Kansas is treated like a seismic event, the major significance of September 7 went unnoticed. From Politico to Morning Joe, there was virtually no mention of the start of the period covered by what is, in effect, a Super PAC Tax.

Under an almost forgotten pre-Watergate campaign reform bill, political candidates for all offices (federal, state, and local) qualify for discounted rates for broadcast TV and radio time beginning 60 days before an election (September 7 this year). This “lowest unit rate” is what stations charge their best advertisers like McDonald’s and local car dealers. Super PACs, outside groups, and independent expenditure efforts by party committees all pay the going commercial rates, which might be double or triple what candidates are charged in hotly contested media markets. 

This distinction is not trivial. When a campaign can buy a television spot for one-third the cost of a Super PAC, the campaign is a much more efficient way of distributing the candidate’s message. Despite this advantage, wealthy benefactors are limited to giving a total of $5,400 to a candidate ($2,700 for the primary and $2,700 for the general), while there are no limits on Super PAC donations. The answer is not lifting the caps on campaign contributions but reminding donors that they get infinitely more bang for the buck giving to a campaign instead of a Super PAC. Moreover, as campaigns devote increasing resources to digital advertising, it might make sense to have a “lowest unit rate” rule for these platforms, too. 

As a handbook for station operators distributed by the Radio Advertising Bureau explains, “Candidates are entitled to the benefits of a package or volume discount without having to purchase the entire package or buy in volume. Candidates can pick the spots within packages and receive the volume discount with the purchase of only one spot.”

These discounts do not eliminate the baleful influence of Super PAC spending and hidden donors (“dark money”) funding political ads through theoretically (and laughably) nonpartisan groups. Nor will they prevent record spending on the persuasion and mobilization of voters in the 2018 elections. While estimates are imprecise with slightly less than eight weeks to go, total spending on political advertising in this campaign cycle could top $4 billion, which would represent about a 15 percent increase over 2014. And according to the authoritative Wesleyan Media Project, the number of political commercials on TV through July 29 jumped by 86 percent compared to early advertising during the 2014 cycle.  

Even the best political reporters often forget to consider in their electoral calculations that candidates can buy more TV time per dollar than Super PACs. A front-page Washington Post article last Tuesday highlighted the sudden risks that Senate Republicans face in formerly safe states like Texas. But the Post story took at face value GOP claims that outside groups like the Senate Leadership PAC, which is closely aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), can make up the fund-raising gap for imperiled incumbents like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R). Left unmentioned by the Post is that candidates, including Texas Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, qualify for discounted TV time and the Senate Leadership PAC doesn’t. 

In similar fashion, an article last week by Adam Wollner for the McClatchy newspapers shined the spotlight on leftwing donor Tom Steyer and his ideological opposite on the far right, Richard Uihlein. The two men now rival Donald Trump pal Sheldon Adelson as the largest outside contributors at the casino table of American politics. But nowhere in the otherwise praiseworthy article did Wollner mention that when Super PACs buy TV time 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election, they are paying supercharged commercial rates. 

My point is not to take a cavalier attitude toward the dangers to American democracy posed by unregulated Super PAC and dark money spending. But by treating Super PACs as the one-to-one equivalent of candidate spending, political reporters inadvertently exaggerate the powers of these billionaire barons. 

Maybe if the political community held a more skeptical view of the political sway of Super PAC advertising, fewer congressional incumbents would genuflect before these mega-donors. In May, for example, Sen. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) rushed to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas to grease Adelson’s $30-million donation to the House speaker’s pet Super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund. 

Ever since the Citizens United decision, reformers have been stymied in efforts to limit campaign contributions in federal elections. But perhaps it might be more fruitful to focus on the spending rather than the fund-raising side of the equation. If candidates could wage competitive House and Senate campaigns by spending less money, then, in theory, they would be less beholden to the super wealthy and their parochial concerns. Remember that desperate candidates are the ones most likely to compromise their principles for ethically dicey donations. 

Discounted TV time for candidates could serve as a model for other campaign reforms. 

For example, with Facebook and Twitter in the crosshairs of congressional regulation, the social media giants could generate some desperately needed congressional goodwill by voluntarily offering free or discounted rates to bona fide candidates. In similar fashion, a regulation requiring federal candidates to provide additional details on the full fees paid to their media consultants might reduce one of the largest hidden costs in politics. Currently, most of the money lavished on media consultants is buried in the gross figures for television buys on the spending reports required by the Federal Election Commission. If donors knew how much campaign money was going to consultants (rather than actual TV ads) perhaps they would pressure candidates to reduce the swag going to some of the greedier ad-makers in the business.

In 1971, when the discounted ad rates were enacted into law, no one imagined that nearly a half century later this move would shimmer as one of the most effective campaign reforms. It is a reminder that perhaps the best way to limit the power of Big Money in politics is to require less of it to get elected. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo illustration: Brennan Center/