Sunlight Grantee Publishes Studies on Campaign Ads and Spending Trends


The Wesleyan Media Project, a grantee of the Sunlight Foundation, recently announced two academic studies based on the comprehensive political ad tracking from the 2010 midterm elections. The professors involved in the project have studies in the most recent issue of The Forum, a Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics. They include an examination of advertising trends in the midterm elections and an assessment of politics following the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision. Both articles depend on the database that the Sunlight Foundation funded and we are excited to share some conclusions from the work those roots have yielded.

The unparalleled sample size of rich data the Wesleyan Media Project collected allowed them to take into account nearly 1.6 million airings and thousands of unique ads. In order to examine the scope of modern political advertising the project utilized technology that provided frequency information (airing dates, markets, etc) as well as full video files which enabled researchers to tag ads based on voiceovers, images and music. While the number of advertisements they accessed is not the complete picture of political advertising, this project represents a new level of electoral comprehension that will help inform the public about the trajectory of politics in America.

The article entitled ‘Advertising Trends in 2010‘ found a number of compelling and unique statistics, including the staggering number that 2.8 million ads ran at a cost of over $1.4 billion from January 1st until Election Day in House, Senate and Gubernatorial races. After thorough analysis the project empirically declares the previous campaign cycle as the most negative in recent history. The study also delve into the specifics of ad tone and found 87.2% of ads from independent groups were attack ads compared with just 36.1% from candidates. Their research followed specific issues and discovered 47.9% of Republican ads addressed employment and jobs compared to about 34.6% of Democratic ads aired between September 1st and Election Day. During the same period the authors examined the placement of the federally-mandated oral approval by the candidate and found that 77% of ads feature it at the end, but of those that place it in the beginning, 72% are attack ads. The piece concludes with the pertinent message that “knowing what campaign themes brought [the 112th Congress] to power is an important prerequisite of holding government accountable.”

The second study addresses the complex issue of Citizens United and adeptly navigates the many analytical nuances of evidence and emotion. ‘The Citizens United Election? Or Same As It Ever Was?‘ compares the activity of organizations following the landmark Supreme Court case with previous rulings and various political environments. These important comparisons assess evidence from the previous election cycle with the divergent predictions following the Citizens United ruling.

Among the many factors this project took into account, we were interested to see in House races that the number of interest groups running ads increased by 168% in the 2010 election over the 2008 election and went up by 44% in Senate races. Compare that number to the overall increase in political advertising with candidates running 26% more ads in House races and 61% more in Senate races. The author recognizes the limitations of data that remains beyond the current reporting requirements and gallantly breaks down the information available. The study recognizes that real effects of the ruling will be seen in future election cycles and plainly states ‘greater disclosure seems a no-brainer.’

The Sunlight Foundation is proud to be involved in the development of these important studies and encourages readers to check them out. The Wesleyan Media Project was established in 2010 with the goal of tracking federal and state election advertising and is a collaboration between researchers at Wesleyan University, Bowdoin College and Washington State University. The new project was preceded by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which existed from 1998 to 2008. Below are the article authors, titles and abstracts.

Fowler, Erika Franklin and Ridout, Travis N. “Advertising Trends in 2010,” The Forum: Vol. 8: Iss. 4, Article 4.

Political advertising offers an important window on American campaigns and elections. We analyze a comprehensive database of political ads aired during the 2010 midterms to shed light on campaign strategies in this history-making election. We find that with the increase in competitive races in 2010, the volume of advertising rose too, as did its negativity. Moreover, we track the issues mentioned by each party, finding that while the parties agreed that employment was the top issue, there was also much divergence in issue priorities, with Republicans taking up some unlikely themes such as health care and “change.” The high volume of advertising in 2010 suggests a greater potential for voter learning, but the high levels of ad negativity could have had both positive and negative consequences on the electorate.

Franz, Michael M. “The Citizens United Election? Or Same As It Ever Was?,” The Forum: Vol. 8: Iss. 4, Article 7.

In January 2010, the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC overturned long-standing regulations governing the role of unions and corporations in sponsoring pro-candidate advocacy. Many predicted a deleterious effect on the electoral process. In the aftermath of the midterm elections, a number of questions deserve consideration. Was the observed level of outside spending abnormally high in 2010? What can we say about the potential effect of outside spending on the outcomes of House and Senate races? Moreover, what has the decision done to the power of parties and, most especially, their ability to compete with special interests in backing federal candidates? This paper investigates these questions using data from the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracked political ads in 2010. The initial evidence suggests that while interest groups were aggressive players in the air war, their impact may not have been as negative or as large as initially predicted.