Thursday, August 9, 2012

Outside Spending in the Montana Senate Race and a Mea Culpa

A week and a half ago, I did an interview with the Wall Street Journal about the U.S. Senate race here in Montana. In that interview, I was quoted as saying the outside money in this race has been 2 to 1 in favor of Denny Rehberg. I was quoted accurately, but it would appear that the 2 to 1 ratio I mentioned was exaggerated. I had gathered some data from television stations in mid-June, and when I looked back at that data, it appeared that my memory had failed me. The number is closer to 1.4 to 1. I should also note that those data are spotty—there are some gaps, and they do not include spending that’s taken place on the airwaves since mid-June. I’ve been given access to additional broadcast advertising data from two independent sources. According to that information, I can safely conclude the following:
      1.  Outside spending on broadcast advertising is overwhelming the spending by the candidates. I define outside spending is spending made any organization that is not a political party or one of the candidate’s campaigns. 

       2. Outside spending indeed favors Congressman Rehberg. That is, there have been more money spent attacking Senator Tester or promoting Congressman Rehberg than money spent attacking Congresman Rehberg or promoting Senator Tester.
      3. How much that spending advantage for Rehberg is not obvious. The advantage is somewhere between $350,000 and $1 million as of the end of July and the first week of August. This includes spending going all the way back to spring of 2011, when the first advertisements appeared in this race attacking Congressman Rehberg (on environmental issues) and supporting Senator Tester on the debit-credit issue. I can’t nail the spending gap down more precisely as it is not clear from the numbers that I have access to do not always compare apples to apples, and sometimes it was hard to disentangle broadcast dollars from cable and radio spending.

In short, I was wrong. The 2 to 1 spending gap is just not true. I apologize to my readers for this mistake.

I want to take this opportunity to stress a larger point. It is really, really hard for scholars, journalists, and the public to figure out who is spending what and when in a campaign while it is ongoing. Television stations are required by the FCC to keep records on hand about the advertising of a political nature done on their stations. The files each station keeps, however, differ and not necessarily standardized. Some stations had all the data on spending in 2011 and 2012 available to me—others did not. Some stations had their files up-to-date, other stations did not (and note, sometimes it was for a reason outside of the station’s control—the person responsible for the files was ill or on vacation—and not an obvious attempt to avoid the reporting requirement). The folks who actually know how much is spent—and have up-to-date information—are Kantar Media based in the Washington, DC metro area. These folks use satellite tracking technology to follow all advertisements aired nationally. They do this to make sure that ads which are placed are actually aired. Companies and campaigns can purchase data from this organization to track spending in particular media markets—and most do. The problem, of course, is that the public does not have access to this proprietary data. While Kantar often does provide information to newspaper reporters and their data has been available to scholars in the past, the public—who needs this information the most—doesn’t have ready access to it. This is not a knock on Kantar—it is, however, further evidence that our disclosure laws have to be brought into the 21st century. Whatever your stance on Citizens United, it is essential in our democratic process for citizens to know who is sponsoring what advertisements on television so they can make an informed judgment concerning the value of the message being transmitted. We are not talking about selling pizza or soap here folks, but rather public policy and our democratic ideals. The buyer should beware—and to be properly skeptical, we need to know who is behind the campaign advertisements we see and use to make our decisions at the ballot box.