After 'Citizens United': The Attack of the Super PACs
Local TV stations across the country have come to rely on the booms in political advertising that come during critical election contests. In the ’70s, political ads were an almost imperceptible part of total TV ad revenues. By 1996, according to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), they had edged up to 1.2 percent. A decade later political advertising was approaching 8–10 percent of total TV ad revenue. For many stations, political advertising in 2012 could account for more than 20 percent of ad revenues, and in some key states far more than that. As former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley put it, election campaigns “function as collection agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations.”
The 2010 election season saw record spending on broadcast advertising: as much as $2.8 billion. And that wasn’t even a presidential election year. Wall Street stock analysts can barely contain themselves as they envision the growing cash flow. Eric Greenberg, a veteran broadcast-industry insider, says, “Political advertising and elections are to TV what Christmas is to retail.”
Broadcasters aren’t about to give away the present they have received from the Supreme Court. The NAB has a long history of lobbying to block any campaign finance reform that would decrease revenues for local television stations, such as the idea of compelling stations to provide free airtime to candidates as a public-service requirement. The NAB’s prowess in Washington was summed up by former Colorado Representative Pat Schroeder, who said, “Their lobbying is so effective, they hardly have to flick an eyelash.” After the Citizens United ruling, the NAB actively opposed key provisions of the DISCLOSE Act, a measure supported by Congressional Democrats and a handful of reform-minded Republicans to roll back elements of the decision. But that’s not all. The group has even opposed steps toward the transparency that Supreme Court justices who backed the Citizens United ruling agree is vital but that might shame (or at least expose) the excesses of Super PACs.
In Iowa, where the race was delayed by wrangling over the caucus date, there were fears the money would not flow. But once the timeline was set, WHO, the NBC affiliate, along with another Des Moines station, took in nearly $3.5 million in the last weeks of 2011. A local station manager admitted he was prepared to interrupt his New Year’s Eve dinner to upload new political ads. In all, more than $12.5 million worth of advertising was purchased in the Iowa race, and December 2011 revenues for WHO were up more than 50 percent from December 2010. The driver in the frenzy of last-minute TV advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire was the Super PACs.
Super PAC advertising is not like traditional campaign advertising. As the scenario that played out in Iowa illustrates, Super PACs allow allies of candidates with the right connections to the right CEOs and hedge-fund managers to pile up money that can then be used not to promote that candidate but to launch scorched-earth attacks on other candidates. The scenario is particularly well suited to negative advertising. This warps the process in a perverse way, creating a circumstance where a candidate who is not particularly appealing to voters but who is particularly appealing to a small group of 1 percenters can, with the help of well-funded friends, frame a campaign in his favor.
The threat to democracy plays out on a number of levels. Candidates without the right connections may prevail in traditional tests—as Gingrich did with strong debate performances and Rick Santorum did with grassroots organizing and a solid finish in Iowa. But they are eventually targeted and taken out by the Super PACs, and the candidate with the right connections, in this case Romney, enjoys smooth sailing. In Iowa, roughly 45 percent of all ads aired on local TV stations: thousands of commercials, one after another, attacking Gingrich.
Negative advertising can be effective even if it does not generate a single new voter for the candidate favored by the Super PAC placing the ad. If negative ads simply scare off potential backers of an opponent, that’s a victory. Moreover, negative ads often force targeted candidates to respond to charges, no matter how spurious. And our lazy and underresourced news media allow the ads to set the agenda for coverage, thereby magnifying their importance and effect.
The most comprehensive research to date concludes that between 2000 and 2008 the overall percentage of political TV ads that were negative increased from 50 percent to 60 percent. And 2008 is already beginning to look like a tea party. The percentage and number of attack ads in 2010 were “unprecedented,” and they are increasing sharply again in 2012.
“I just hate it, and there’s so much of it,” Sarah Hoffman complained to a reporter at a Gingrich event in the Iowa town of Shenandoah. “Anytime they do anything negative, I just turn it off.” Gingrich emerged as a born-again reformer for about ninety-six hours during his Iowa free-fall, telling voters like Hoffman: “It will be interesting to see whether, in fact, the people of Iowa decide that they don’t like the people who run negative ads, because you could send a tremendous signal to the country that the era of nasty and negative thirty-second campaigns is over.”
If a signal was sent from Iowa, it was that many voters would rather switch off than try to sort out the attacks. With no competition on the Democratic side, and with conservatives supposedly all ginned up to choose a challenger for President Obama, Republicans confidently suggested that caucus turnout would rise from 119,000 in 2008 to as much as 150,000 in 2012. Instead, turnout was up only marginally, to around 122,000. If the maverick candidacy of Ron Paul had not attracted thousands of new voters to the caucuses—many of them antiwar and pro–civil liberties independents unlikely to vote Republican in the fall—the turnout would almost certainly have fallen to pre-2008 levels. “If all people hear are negatives, a lot of them are just going to ask, Why bother?” says Ed Fallon, a former Democratic legislator and local radio host in Des Moines who caucused this year as a Republican. “And they’re even more frustrated by the fact that the money for the negative campaigning comes from all these unidentified sources on Wall Street.”
The research of scholars Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar demonstrates that the main consequence of negative ads is that they demobilize citizens and turn them away from electoral politics. This fact is a “tacit assumption among political consultants,” they explain, arguing that the trend is toward “a political implosion of apathy and withdrawal.”
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Were national and local broadcast media outlets to cover politics as anything more than a horse race and a clash of personalities, they might be able to undo much of the damage. But stations across the country—and the newspapers they often depend on for serious coverage—have eviscerated local reporting in recent years. Surveys suggest that news programs now devote far less time to political coverage than they did twenty or thirty years ago. To the extent that campaigns are covered, the focus is on personalities and the catfight character of the competition. So it was that when Gingrich complained about the battering he was taking from the Super PACs, the story was portrayed as a dust-up between a pair of candidates rather than as evidence of a structural crisis. In part, this is the fault of the candidates, who for the most part do not want to speak too broadly about Super PAC abuses in which they are engaging or in which they hope to engage.
Once it became clear that the media had no real interest in examining the problem, Gingrich quickly got with the program. Rather than make an issue out of campaign corruption, Gingrich’s own Super PAC, Winning Our Future, corralled a $5 million donation from the spare-change drawer of Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson (listed by Forbes as the eighth-wealthiest American, with a $21 billion fortune) just before the New Hampshire primary. The plan was to launch a blitzkrieg against Romney. Here we finally get the proper metaphor for post–Citizens United elections: mutually assured destruction, with citizens and the governing process the only certain casualties.
Unfortunately, the media outlets that could challenge this doomsday scenario tend to facilitate it. The elimination of campaign coverage is masked to a certain extent because the gutting of newsrooms also encourages what sociologist Herbert Gans describes as the conversion of political news into campaign coverage. As campaigns have become permanent, so has campaign coverage. Such coverage is cheap and easy to do, and lends itself to gossip and endless chatter, even as it sometimes provides the illusion that serious affairs of state are under scrutiny. To someone watching cable news channels, it might seem that presidential races have never been so thoroughly exhumed by reporters. But the coverage is as nutrition-free as a fast-food hamburger. After a panel of “experts” finish “making sense” of Rick Perry’s debate performances, political ads don’t look so bad.
With the little news coverage that remains focusing overwhelmingly on the presidential race, Congressional, statewide and local races get little attention nationally or even locally. Not surprisingly, research suggests that political TV advertising is even more effective further down the food chain. “In presidential campaigns, voters may be influenced by news coverage, debates or objective economic or international events,” the Brookings Institution’s Darrell West explained in 2010. “These other forces restrain the power of advertisements and empower a variety of alternative forces. In Congressional contests, some of these constraining factors are absent, making advertisements potentially more important. If candidates have the money to advertise in a Congressional contest, it can be a very powerful force for electoral success.”
West’s point is confirmed by a simple statistic from the 2010 races: of fifty-three competitive House districts where Rove and his compatriots backed Republicans with “independent” expenditures that easily exceeded similar expenditures made on behalf of Democrats—often by more than $1 million per district, according to Public Citizen—Republicans won fifty-one.
To the extent that media outlets cover campaigns, they highlight the “charge and countercharge” character of the fight as an asinine personality clash between candidates. But the real clash is between money and democracy. And the media outlets that continue to play a critical role in defining our discourse are not objecting. They are cashing in. Meanwhile, citizens are checking out.
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