Still from an ad released by Newt Gingrich’s campaign.
We have seen the future of electoral politics flashing across the screens of local TV stations from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina. Despite all the excitement about Facebook and Twitter, the critical election battles of 2012 and for some time to come will be fought in the commercial breaks on local network affiliates. This year, according to a fresh report to investors from Needham and Company’s industry analysts, television stations will reap as much as $5 billion—up from $2.8 billion in 2008—from a money-and-media election complex that plays a definitional role in our political discourse. As Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod says, the cacophony of broadcast commercials remains “the nuclear weapon” of American politics.
We’ve known for some time that the pattern, extent and impact of political advertising would be transformed and supercharged by the Supreme Court’s January 2010 Citizens United ruling. But the changes, even at this early stage of the 2012 campaign, have proven to be more dramatic and unsettling than all but the most fretful analysts had imagined.
Citizens United’s easing of restrictions on corporate and individual spending, especially by organizations not under the control of candidates, has led to the proliferation of “Super PACs.” These shadowy groups do not have to abide by the $2,500 limit on donations to actual campaigns, and they can easily avoid rules for reporting sources of contributions. For instance, Super PACs have established nonprofit arms that are permitted to shield contributors’ identities as long as they spend no more than 50 percent of their money on electoral politics. So the identity of many, possibly most, contributors will never be known to the public, even though they are already playing a decisive role in the 2012 election season. Former White House political czar Karl Rove’s Crossroads complex, for example, operates both a Super PAC and a nonprofit. And Rove’s operation is being replicated almost daily by new political operations aiming their money at presidential, Congressional, state and local elections. “In 2010, it was just training wheels, and those training wheels will come off in 2012,” says Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. “There will be more, bigger groups spending, and not just on one side but on both sides.”
The 2012 campaign has already confirmed that Super PACs are key players, more powerful in many ways than the campaigns waged by candidates and party committees. But don’t expect commercial media outlets to shed much light on these secretive powers. Newsroom staffs have been cut, political reporting is down and local stations are too busy cashing in on what TV Technology magazine describes as “the political windfall.” The Citizens United ruling and its Super PAC spawn have created a new revenue stream for media companies, and they are not about to turn the spigot off. “Voters are going to be inundated with more campaign advertising than ever,” one investor service wrote in 2011. “While this may fray the already frazzled nerves of the American people, it is great news for media companies.” Indeed, Super PAC ads allow stations to reap revenues from actual campaigns and from parallel “independent” campaigns targeting the same audience with different messages.
Here’s what the next stage of American politics looks like on the screen: WHO, the NBC affiliate in Des Moines, was awash in political advertising the night before the Iowa caucuses. But some ads stood out. One of the most striking was a minute-long commercial featuring amber waves of grain fluttering in the summer breeze, children smiling and a fellow with great hair declaring, “The principles that have made this nation a great and powerful leader of the world have not lost their meaning. They never will.” Then the guy with the great hair announced, “I’m Mitt Romney. I believe in America. And I am running for president of the United States.”