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Parties Groups Dominate Key Congress Campaign Ad Spending; Candidate “Hard Money” Often Surpassed by Others’ “Soft”

In four key U.S. Senate races, Republican candidates have outspent their Democratic rivals more than two-to-one on television, only to see that extraordinary advantage nearly wiped away by Democratic Party committees and by special interest group ad buys

September 29, 2004

For Immediate Release
September 28, 2000

Contact Information
Steve Rabinowitz, Matt Dorf, 202–547–3577
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6736
Ken Goldstein, University of Wisconsin Madison, 608 263–2390

Patries, Groups Dominate Key Cong. Campaign Ad Spending; Candidate “Hard Money” Often Surpassed By Others’ “Soft”
Brennan Center Study Finds Senate Republican Candidates’ 2–1 Advantage Nearly Erased by Democratic Party and Interest Group TV Spending

In four key U.S. Senate races, Republican candidates have outspent their Democratic rivals more than two-to-one on television, only to see that extraordinary advantage nearly wiped away by Democratic Party committees and by special interest group ad buys favoring the Democrats. And in several closely followed Congressional campaigns, the candidates’ own ad spending has been routinely outpaced sometimes dwarfed by others’ spending on their behalf.

These findings are the latest in an ongoing study of political television advertising by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, conducted in conjunction with political scientist Kenneth Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin Madison. The study is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Using data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group (“CMAG”) to monitor political advertising in the nation’s top 75 media markets, reaching over 80 percent of the U.S. population, the Brennan Center and Professor Goldstein are analyzing political advertising in real time for the duration of the 2000 campaign. Every political ad aired in these media markets is reviewed, quantified and coded along an extensive array of variables.

In Congressional races this year, as in the presidential campaign, party spending of “soft money” on televised campaign appeals continues at a record pace, while special interest groups are playing an equally unprecedented role.

In four top Senate races (in Michigan, Missouri, New York and Virginia), where both party nominees were established long ago, Republican candidates have outspent their Democratic rivals on TV over $14 million to less than $6 million since June 1. But when over $9 million in Democratic soft money (compared to $3.5 million in Republican) is factored in, the Democratic candidates nearly catch up.

“The Republican Senate leadership, which killed campaign finance reform for the past few legislative sessions, ought to be kicking themselves about now,” says E. Joshua Rosenkranz, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. “By defeating the reforms favored by a majority of both houses, they handed the Democrats a clear advantage. Just as in the presidential races, in key Senate and House races, soft money is the game, and Democrats are playing it better. And in key House races, groups running sham ‘issue ads’ are drowning out both the candidates and the parties,” Rosenkranz observes. “This is what they call poetic justice.”

An analysis of soft money advertising in the U.S. Senate race in New York appears to provide perhaps the most dramatic difference and may well also give insight into the impact of an apparent recent agreement by the two major candidates to ban such advertising. While Republican candidate Rick Lazio has consistently outspent Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton almost two-to-one, Democratic Party advertising and, until recently, special interest group spending, have combined to actually give Mrs. Clinton a ten percent overall advantage ($10 million to $9 million).

In four of the most competitive Congressional races (KY-6, KY-3, AR-4, PA-10), interest group spending on television routinely tops that of the candidates and often even that of the parties. In Kentucky, former U.S. Rep. Scotty Baesler (D) has been spending less than either his party or his interest group allies on TV, and yet, his totals have been almost exactly the same as that of current Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R). Meanwhile, in the Anne Northup-Eleanor Jordan race cross-state, soft interest group money has accounted for more than half of all ad spending since June 1 and exactly double that of the candidates themselves.

In Arkansas, candidate hard money advertising has taken such a back seat to its soft money helpers, that challenger Mike Ross (D) spent none of his own money on broadcast television in the middle of September. Yet overall spending on his behalf still exceeds that of incumbent Rep. Jay Dickey (R). And in Pennsylvania, both Republican Congressman Don Sherwood and his Democratic challenger Pat Casey have each contributed less than one-quarter of the total ad dollars spent in support of their candidacies.

“Many people are familiar with the large amount of interest group and party soft money that is being spent and raised this cycle,” says University of Wisconsin Professor Ken Goldstein. “Still, the real magnitude of the problem is made clear when the most competitive races are highlighted. In close race after close race, soft money is completely overshadowing the candidates’ own expenditures,” Prof. Goldstein says.

These findings make the 2000 campaign the first ever in which information describing candidates’ use of the television airwaves will be available to voters, political scientists, and campaign analysts in real time. The Brennan Center study will last for the duration of the campaign and reveals the untold story of television advertising paid for by candidates, parties, and groups:

  • Spending on ads by candidates, parties, and allied groups.
  • Priority media markets targeted by the Republican and Democratic parties during the most recent two weeks.
  • Analysis of party advertising.
The findings for the 2000 election cycle build on the Brennan Center’s Buying Time: Television Advertising in the 1998 Congressional Elections, available online at Among the 1998 findings was the revelation that the definition used to identify campaign appeals, which relies on so-called magic words such as “vote for,” “elect,” or “defeat,” captured only 4 percent of the advertisements run by congressional candidates. The narrowness of the definition allows parties and groups to sponsor ads indistinguishable from those run by candidates, yet these ads escape the obligations of campaign finance law.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law develops and implements a nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms. For more real time information describing the 2000 presidential and congressional races contact Scott Schell at (212) 998–6318.

Explanatory Notes for Accompanying Tables:

  • Methodology. Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), a commercial firm that advises advertisers and reporters, compiled the data using technology that monitors political advertising by the major national broadcast television networks and 25 leading cable networks in 75 media markets reaching over 80% of the population. Each time an ad ran, CMAG recorded the date, time, television station and length of the ad. The information was later supplemented with estimates of the cost for each time slot. CMAG reported the average cost of the time slot for each ad aired. This captured the cost of the media buy, not the amount spent on production or placement.

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