The high cost of television ads for super PACs

A screenshot from a political ad produced by Right to Rise USA.

Every election season, campaigns will boast about how much they have spent on television political advertising. As we go into this political season, it’s important that reporters ask the follow up question: How many ads did that amount buy?

TV ad costs vary based on the station’s market size (the amount of people the television station reaches), the demographics and ratings of the show targeted for advertising, and whether the ad is purchased by a candidate’s committee or an independent expenditure group like a super PAC. Additionally, ads can be purchased by a nonprofit 501(c)(4) — dark money groups that do not have to disclose their donors.

Those variables are becoming increasingly important to consider in this election where the amount spent by candidates ranges from Jeb Bush, whose supporters have spent $25.7 million in ads, and Donald Trump, who has not spent a dime.

The Wesleyan Media Project recently released a study of super PAC and political spending that highlights an interesting dichotomy: Super PACs may be able to raise unlimited funds, but the candidates who are financing their ads through their political PACs are getting more bang for their buck.

The report points out that the $25.7 million supporting Jeb Bush bought 15,750 ads. Most of those ads were purchased by the super PAC Right to Rise. Comparatively, the Clinton campaign has spent $8.2 million on 13,450 ads. Bernie Sanders has spent $4.2 million and bought 7,205 ads, while the Marco Rubio campaign has spent $9.2 million buying just 6,596 ads.

The contrast has nothing to do with the political party and everything to do with how the candidate is primarily funding the campaign. The Federal Communications Commission rules governing super PACs are different than candidate PACs. The FCC requires broadcasters to give the lowest available rate to candidates for office, but they are allowed to charge whatever they want to super PACs. Clinton and Sanders candidate committees have purchased most of their ads, while Right to Rise super PAC has purchased most of the ads supporting Jeb Bush, and the 501(c)(4) Conservative Solutions Project has purchased most of the ads supporting Marco Rubio.

Here’s another example of how that works from our Political Ad Sleuth tool. We’ll use the week of Nov. 30–Dec. 6 on Des Moines CBS affiliate KCCI as an example.

During that week, Hillary for President (Hillary’s candidate PAC) bought three ads to run in the 10:00 p.m. newscast. This ad buy cost her campaign $1,500 for each of those ads.

Meanwhile, Right to Rise, the supporting super PAC supporting Jeb Bush, bought ads in the same period on KCCI during the same week. They had to pay $3000 for each ad shown during the 10 p.m. newscast.

Instead of boasting the amount bought, it might be more accurate to talk about the placement of those ads and how many the amount purchased.

However, so far in this cycle, there also seems to be no direct correlation between the amount spent on television and polling numbers. Still, we can’t say that television is irrelevant to this election. Television, especially the local newscast, still reaches a particular audience that campaigns want: older Americans who will vote. There’s an argument to be made that even though he has not spent a dime on advertising, Trump has still tapped into that audience by making headlines in those desirable

It’s certainly been a very nontraditional start to this political advertising season, and with a lot of big donors still sitting out there’s a lot left to watch. But as we start hearing about large amounts dropped on advertising, it’s important to keep an eye on Political Ad Sleuth to find out what that has purchased.