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Tens of Millions in Sham Issue Ads Escaped Disclosure Laws in 2000

March 15, 2005

For Immediate Release
March 14, 2001

Contact Information:
Craig Holman, 212 992–8642
Scott Schell, 212 998–6318
Steve Rabinowitz, 202 547–3577

Tens of Millions in Sham Issue Ads Escaped Disclosure Laws in 2000
Groups Took Adavantage of Broken System to Attack Candidates While Concealing Donors;
Proposal in McCain-Feingold Bill Would Have Appropriately Required Disclosure of Group Ad Spending 99% Of The Time, And Captured Only Three Genuine Issue Ads;
72% of Electioneering Ads Paid For By Groups Were Attack Ads;

Less than 20% Of Candidate-Sponsored Ads Were Negative

As Congress readies itself for historic debate on campaign finance reform scheduled to begin next week, a new analysis of data on political television by the Brennan Center for Justice confirms the failure of current law to identify ads intended to influence the outcome of an election. Words of express advocacy such as “vote for” or “vote against” the so-called “magic words” test established by the U.S. Supreme Court for identifying electioneering ads are rarely found in any campaign ads, even those ads paid for by candidates (9.6%).

In sharp contrast to the bankruptcy of the current legal standard, an issue-ad provision (originally offered by Senators Snowe and Jeffords) contained in the pending McCain-Feingold legislation would have accurately identified 99.4% of electioneering ads paid for by non-party groups in the final 60 days of the 2000 campaign.

Under the guise that they are paying for ads aimed at informing the public on a policy issue, non-party groups sponsored at least $98 million of electioneering issue ads in the 2000 campaign without having to disclose their funding sources, where they aired ads, or how much they spent. As shown in Figure One, the lion’s share of this spending by interest groups occurred in the final 60 days of the election.

“This is the ultimate ‘truth in advertising’ issue for democracy,” explains E. Joshua Rosenkranz, President of the Brennan Center. “Every American who cares about government has a stake in the law’s ability to successfully identify electioneering ads. If the group paying for an ad intends to influence an election, then disclosure, contribution caps, and source restrictions must come into play, in order to eliminate corruption, real or perceived. If we’re talking about a genuine issue ad one that primarily informs then campaign finance regulations need not apply.”

The study co-authored by the Brennan Center and researchers at the University of Wisconsin directly rebuts the dire “sky is falling” predictions made by non-party groups and, more recently, organized labor. The Snowe-Jeffords issue-ad provision would for the first time mandate financial disclosure of non-party, group ads which: a) air within 60 days of an election, b) mention a candidate by name or depict her image, and c) run in the candidate’s electoral district. According to the study, of 55,000 ads paid for by non-party groups in the 60 days prior to the 2000 election that depict a candidate, only 331 airings of ads fewer than one percent of the total were genuine issue ads that would have been improperly caught by the Snowe-Jeffords test. These 331 airings were of three advertisements out of a total of more than 200 distinct ads.

“It’s a fiction to think we can have meaningful campaign finance reform without standards that accurately identify sham issue ads paid for by groups,” said Dr. Craig Holman, the Brennan Center’s Senior Policy Analyst. “Group spending on political ads in 2000 is conservatively estimated at $100 million. Predictably, in the two months before election day 2000, genuine issue advocacy dried up, and groups turned their spending primarily to cloaked electioneering ads that were aimed at electing candidates, not discussing issues. The Snowe-Jeffords bright line test is a narrowly tailored and effective response to this exploding problem.”

These findings are the most recent in a cooperative study of political television advertising by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and Prof. 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, researchers at the Brennan Center and the University of Wisconsin have documented the frequency, content and costs of television ads in the 2000 election, duplicating a similar study conducted in 1998.

Not only does sham issue advocacy allow all variety of groups to conceal the source of funding behind special interest campaigns, it also has fouled the tone of campaigns, supplanting ads that promote the virtues of candidates with ads that attack the character of a candidate’s opponent. Electioneering issue ads paid for by groups are far more likely to go on the attack than candidate-sponsored campaign ads (party ads go on the attack more frequently than candidate ads, but less often than group ads). As shown in Figure 3, more than 70% of electioneering ads sponsored by groups are attack ads that denigrate a candidate’s image or character, as opposed to fewer than 20% of candidate-sponsored ads. Candidate ads prefer to promote candidacies, while group ads and party ads both prefer to attack opponents.

Consistent with the rise in sham issue advocacy as Election Day nears, the overall tone of issue ads grows dramatically more negative in the last few months of an election. As shown in Figure 4, candidates and the American public can expect a wave of television advertising in the last 60 days of an election casting aspersions on a candidate’s integrity, health or intentionsall the while concealing from the public the true identity of the accuser.

“When we see an attack ad as we did alleging that George W. Bush had problems with drugs in his past, or that Al Gore broke the law when he visited Buddhist monks, we want to know who is leveling those charges,” commented the Brennan Center’s Dr. Craig Holman. “Disclosure of the identity of those paying for campaign ads is a reform that is universally embraced. But disclosure rules will be meaningless, unless we adopt a definition of electioneering that eliminates sham issue ads. That’s what the McCain-Feingold bill would do.”

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 For more information describing the 2000 presidential and congressional races, please contact Craig Holman (212) 992–8642, Ken Goldstein at (608) 263–2390, Scott Schell at (212) 998–6318, or Steve Rabinowitz at (202) 547–3577.

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data tables

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March 13, 2001 press release.

December 11, 2000 press release.

November 21, 2000 press release.

October 19, 2000 press release.

October 16, 2000 press release.

September 28, 2000 press release.

September 27, 2000 press release.

September 19, 2000 press release.