Outside groups now represent a major voice in US Senate campaigns, but it remains unclear to what degree outside groups are independent actors or are simply performing the same role once filled almost entirely by the parties. This article investigates whether independent groups distribute media expenditures in ways that mirror the objectives of parties, or if divergent interests cause independent groups to allocate these funds differently. Using a large original dataset of media spending in Senate campaigns from 2010 through 2014, this study specifies how a seat-maximizing strategy will go beyond simply directing money to the most competitive contests; that within similarly competitive races outside groups spend more on media when the candidates spend less. The observed pattern of outside group resource allocation reveals that outside group activity in the aggregate is consistent with the seat-maximizing strategy expected from parties, but one subgroup of outsiders, issue-based independent groups, are less sensitive to these considerations.
About the author
Kenneth Miller is a PhD candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He had previously spent eight years in advertising, market research, and political polling in Cleveland, OH and Washington, DC.
Appendix: Measurement of Variables
Coding campaign expenditures by the type of activity, even with computer assistance, is a labor-intensive process. FEC forms provide activity codes for committees to use when reporting their expenditures, but committees almost never actually use them. Committees must write in descriptions of the expenditures, however. Campaign expenditures are coded using these brief descriptions.
Media expenditures are first coded automatically based on the appearance of certain character strings: advertis, ads, spot, television, tv, video, radio, newspaper, media, broadcast, adwords. Afterward, all expenditures not automatically coded were inspected by a human researcher and coded. The accuracy of the coding process was verified by manually recoding 1000 randomly selected expenditures. The manual recodes were identical in 99.8% of cases. Neither error involved media expenditures, and both errors were cases of direct voter contact that was miscoded as other expenses.
Outside groups were coded based on the stated objectives of the group on its own website, profile information from opensecrets.org, and press accounts if available. Groups were placed into categories based on the following:
Party Committees: Groups explicitly connected with one of the two major parties.
Party-Adjacent Groups: Groups that refer to a broad platform of issues all consistent with one party, or refer to electing Republicans/conservatives or Democrats/progressives, and allocate resources across multiple races all on one partisan side.
Issue-Based Groups: Groups that are affiliated with an interest group or industry, offer memberships, or advocate for narrow policy goals. Note that Tea Party groups are included in this category despite seemingly broad issue interests due to their tendency to oppose Republican incumbents in primaries and references to “true conservatives.” Most Tea Party expenditures are related to direct contact of voters via mail and post for fundraising and advocacy, and little has been spent on mass media.
Single Candidate Groups: Groups created to support a single candidate in a single Senate election.
The Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report rates the likelihood of each party winning the presidency, House, Senate, and gubernatorial contests using a nine-point scale, from safe Republican to safe Democrat. The ratings are created by interviewing “more than 150 congressional candidates every cycle and talk with key partisan decision-makers in Washington and astute political observers in the states. We also rely heavily on data, including past electoral history and trends, current polling (public and private, partisan and nonpartisan), as well as national surveys” (Gonzales 2015). Rothenberg’s nine category scale reflects the probability that one party or the other will win the seat, not the expected vote share. Folding Rothenberg’s scale to creates a five-point competitiveness scale: non-competitive, less competitive, competitive, tilting, toss-up. The resulting scale for Senate races is distributed as shown in Table A1.
A potential concern is that the race competitiveness variable is endogenous to the spending variables in the models estimated in this study. Gonzales makes no mention of campaign spending when describing how ratings are determined, but campaign spending could be factored into the ratings through Rothenberg’s discussions with “key partisan decision-makers … and astute political observers.” There is little evidence that the Rothenberg staff update or alter race ratings based on suddenly announced large media buys or other campaign activity. Instead, polls, and past performances in the states are the strongest drivers of these ratings. For these reasons it is reasonable to treat the competitiveness ratings as sufficiently exogenous to political spending.
Size of Media Markets:
The size of the media markets for each senate race express the average size of the media market where Senate general election broadcast television ads ran in the 2010 and 2012 elections, weighted by the number of spots that ran in that market. Total airings for each Senate contest were obtained from the Wesleyan Media Project and the size of each market in that election year (expressed as thousands of television households) was obtained from Nielson.
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