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Campaign Finance Reform: Fact & Fiction

Fact and Fiction based on findings from Buying Time 2000: Television Advertising in the 2000 Federal Elections

Published: December 31, 2001



Based on findings from Buying Time 2000: Television Advertising in the 2000 Federal Elections

1. Fiction: Shays-Meehan would cut out genuine issue speech.


  • Of all the group ads that would have been captured had the Shays-Meehan 60-day test been in effect in the 2000 general election, exactly three unique ads, accounting for a tiny 0.6% of all spots, were perceived as genuine issue advocacy.
  • In 1998, the comparable statistic was two unique ads.
  • Only 3% of all group ads perceived to be genuine issue ads mention a candidate.
  • Beyond that, the Shays-Meehan test closely tracks the actual prevalence of electioneering ads: 79% of electioneering ads by groups are captured by the 60-day test.

2. Fiction: The “magic words” test adequately distinguishes election-related speech from issue advocacy.


  • Candidates, themselves, who are indisputably engaged in electioneering, used magic words only 10% of the time in 2000 (4% in 1998).
  • 97% of ads perceived to be electioneering did not use magic words, in both 1998 and 2000.
  • All political party ads were perceived to be electioneering, even though political parties use magic words only 2.3% of the time. (In 1998, 95% were electioneering, but only 1.2% used magic words.)
  • The magic words test is not nearly the bright line adherents believe it to be: Numerous ads in 2000 were hard to classify as express advocacy or not.

3. Fiction: Genuine issue advocacy peaks closer to an election, because that is when voters are most attuned to the issues.


  • The number of genuine issue ads actually declines close to the election, but electioneering spikes: about half (51%) all genuine issue ads occur in the four-month period between April and July, while only 19% occur in the two months before an election.
    The percentage of group-sponsored political ads that mention candidates increases from 12% during the first half of the calendar year, to 50% in July and August, to 61% in September, to 69% during the rest of the election cycle. (The comparable statistics in 1998 were 34% in the first half of the year, 62% in July and August, 82% in September, and 95% during the rest of the cycle.)

4. Fiction: Soft money is needed for party-building and voter-mobilization activities.


  • Only 8.5 cents of every soft money dollar is spent on activities that might even remotely be considered voter mobilization, while 38 cents on the dollar is spent on media and issue advocacy.
  • 100% of all political party ads are perceived as electioneering (93% in 1998).
  • 92% of all political party ads never so much as mention the name of the political party (85% in 1998).
  • The political parties are spending so much money on TV ads, all depicting candidates, that they actually outspent the candidates themselves in the 2000 presidential election $81 million to $71 million.
  • Party spending on House races ($43 million) was targeted only to competitive races a mere 48 races in all. A third of all that spending ($14 million) was reserved for six House races.

5. Fiction: Soft money is used to enhance the prospects of candidates of color.


  • Less than 7% of spending by parties on advertising in connection with House races went to races involving candidates of color.
  • Of the 42 races in which the Democratic Party aired television ads, just three involved candidates of color. None of those three were among the top recipients of party advertising.

6. Fiction: Shays-Meehan will unfairly trap unwary bit players, like unsophisticated individuals and small grassroots groups.


  • At least 98.5% of the political advertising in 2000 was sponsored by political parties, corporations, unions, and major national organizations.