Over the past few weeks, ad buys by various political campaigns have been breathlessly reported by journalists. But if they’re just reporting the amount of money spent, they’re missing the story.
As I reported for the Daily Beast back in February, not all political ad purchases are created equal. There is a common sense aspect to this, buying advertising in advance is cheaper than doing it at the last minute but campaign finance law also plays a major part of this because of something called Lowest Unit Rate. As I described it then:
Unbeknownst to most voters, political campaigns get a subsidy to run television ads. By FCC regulation, television stations have to sell advertising slots to candidates for both federal and state office at the “lowest unit rate” within 60 days of a general election and 45 days of a primary. The discount consists of “the lowest rate charged to the best advertiser, taking into account all advertising,” said broadcast-law specialist David Oxenford, a Washington, D.C.–based partner at the firm of Davis, Wright, Tremaine and regular contributor to Broadcast Law Blog. Thus, if a station advertises a deal where purchasers receive 10 advertising slots for the price of nine, a political campaign would get that same discount, even if it buys time to air its commercial only once. Super PACs don’t get the discount; they have to pay the same rates as everyone else, making the cost of super-PAC ad buys significantly higher than that of a campaign.
Daily Download has gotten exclusive access to comprehensive data from Iowa’s Third Congressional District, a 50/50 district where two long-term incumbents–Democrat Leonard Boswell and Republican Tom Latham–are in perhaps the most competitive race in the country. It gives a clear indication of how some ad purchasers get a lot more bang for their buck.
For example, throughout the course of the campaign, Crossroads, the Republican superPAC run by Karl Rove has spent $730,615 in the district through the cycle. This has bought it 2,300 points (the measurement used by advertisers to track market penetration, the more points you buy, the more eyeballs you reach). In contrast, the campaign of incumbent Democrat Boswell has spent only $118,000 more than Rove’s group but has gotten 8,699 points, nearly four times as much penetration.
This trend has been especially clear during the final week of the campaign, when, to use another example, the House Majority PAC, a Democratic superPAC, spent $171,980 in the Des Moines media market on 500 points. In contrast, Latham’s campaign spent $199,450 and was up in Des Moines at 2,099 points.
These figures serve as a warning not to take the money spent by campaigns too seriously in final days of the campaign. The Romney campaign, for example, has made much of its plans to make last-ditch effort to win Pennsylvania by finally investing in the Philadelphia media market. As the Washington Post reports, Restore Our Future, the Romney supporting superPAC has bought $2.1 million worth of advertising there and the campaign has topped that off with an extra $120,000 worth of TV time.
Restore Our Future is a superPAC, not subject to lowest unit rate buying television time at the last minute in the fourth most expensive television market in the United States—a market far more expensive than Des Moines. $2.1 million worth of television advertising is just a drop in the bucket compared what would make a significant impact. The Romney campaign (and its superPAC’s) actions aren’t those of a campaign making a concentrated strategic effort. It’s simply that they have money to burn and no other place to spend it in the next week. It still might make an impact but the Romney campaign is simply betting on a longshot with house money. It’s a no-lose situation.