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A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

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Interest Groups in Electoral Politics: 2012 in Context

Michael M. Franz
  • Corresponding author
  • Bowdoin College, 9800 College Station, Brunswick, ME 04011, USA
  • Email:
Published Online: 2013-02-09 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0007


This paper compares the levels of ad spending from outside groups and traditional party organizations across seven federal election cycles. The data show clearly that outside groups advertised at historic levels in 2012. Such intense efforts send two important signals to students of American campaign finance. The first involves a crisis in the system of limited donations to candidates and party committees moving forward. The second resurrects an old debate in political science about whether parties or candidates should be the center of our electoral process. The paper concludes with a consideration of possible reforms that might help restore parties and candidates to the center of issue debates in competitive federal elections.

About the article

Michael M. Franz

Michael Franz is Associate Professor of Government at Bowdoin College and Co-Director of the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP). His research interests include campaign finance, political advertising, and interest groups, and he is author or co-author of four books, including The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising (Temple, 2011). He especially thanks The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, Wesleyan University and Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center for their support of this project, along with his two collaborators, Travis Ridout and Erika Franklin Fowler, and the WMP Project Manager, Laura Baum, plus the entire Media Project team across all three institutions.

Corresponding author: Michael M. Franz, Bowdoin College, 9800 College Station, Brunswick, ME 04011, USA

Published Online: 2013-02-09

“Outside groups spend over $500 million in October,” by David Leventhal. Politico, 11/2/12: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83218.html (Accessed November 4, 2012).

Ad data from both projects count ads aired on local broadcast stations (NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox affiliates) and national cable. Totals exclude ads aired on local cable stations. The number of markets included in the data varies in each year but includes all 210 markets since 2008 (and the 2004 presidential election).

Michael M. Franz. 2011. “The Citizens United election? Or same as it ever was?” The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics Vol. 8, Issue 4.

On the other hand, interest groups more than doubled their share of ads compared to 2008 (from 6% to 13%).

“The Numbers Don’t Lie,” Slate, by Rick Hasen, 3/9/12: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2012/03/the_supreme_court_s_citizens_united_decision_has_led_to_an_explosion_of_campaign_spending_.html (Accessed 11/9/12).

For example, Rick Hasen. 2011. “Citizens United and the illusion of coherence,” Michigan Law Review. 109: 581–623.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion and said regarding disclosure: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

The review below, for the sake of brevity, leaves out a longer discussion of ancillary challenges to campaign finance laws in the court system. The Supreme Court in 2011, for example, overturned part of Arizona’s clean election laws (McComish v. Bennett), which in turn invalidated related provisions in other states. The Court relied on similar logic as in Citizens United. There are a host of other challenges in the court system that concern major pieces of established campaign finance, from candidate contribution limits to party fund-raising restrictions.

Presumably the case also freed corporations and unions to contribute unlimited amounts to these PACs, though the case concerned only contributions from individuals.

See also Carey v. Federal Election Commission 791 F. Supp. 2d 121 (D.D.C. 2011), which allowed PACs unconnected to unions or corporations to run “hybrid” Super PACs that make candidate contributions (with regulated money) and independent expenditures (with unregulated money). The FEC has deadlocked (Advisory Opinion 2012–01) on whether to allow connected PACs (those run by unions and corporations) the same opportunity.

See R. Sam Garrett. 2012. “Seriously funny: understanding campaign finance policy through the Colbert Super PAC,” St. Louis University Law Journal 56 (3): 711–723.

These fines were small in comparison to the total money raised and spent by the three organizations, compelling many to argue that groups could internalize the fines as “the cost of doing business.” If so, the threat of an FEC investigation is not really a deterrent. Still, such negative publicity might have deterred donors from actively giving, which is one argument for the lower levels of outside spending in the congressional elections of 2006. For the facts surrounding the fines, see: http://www.fec.gov/press/press2006/20061213murs.html (Accessed 12/1/12).

How did political money get this loud? by Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine, 7/22/2012, p.MM14.

Bai’s piece misses a lot of nuance about the elections following McCain-Feingold. For one, the 2006 elections did not see a huge amount of outside spending (as will be demonstrated below). This is probably because the rules at the time were effective at restraining them, especially in the immediate aftermath of such public discussion of 527s in the 2004 election. If the entire jump in outside spending was attributable to McCain-Feingold, 2006 stands out as a glaring anomaly. Second, the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC 551 US 449 (2007) loosened some of these tight funding restrictions for groups and more importantly signaled that the Court was willing to rethink standing precedent.

These ads were at issue in Van Hollen v. FEC earlier in 2012. Television or radio ads that mention or depict a candidate for federal office and that air close to elections are called “electioneering communications.” Groups are required to report these expenditures to the FEC, but they can easily avoid reporting the source of the funding. The lax regulation on donor disclosure was overturned by the District Court for the District of Columbia in March of 2012, but that ruling was overturned by the D.C. Appeals Court in September 2012.

This is not to suggest that interest groups committed no resources in these campaigns. Unions, for example, were split over the appropriate Democratic nominee in 2004 and 2008, and lots of groups in the party’s network of allied organizations preferred one candidate. These groups invested in the primary race in other ways. The important point with Figure 1 is the clear change in the level of investment from groups on television ads.

Because the time periods for the start of the general election include some months before the party conventions, advertising by the candidates as described below includes funds raised for their primary campaigns. That is of little consequence for the calculations, since all of the ads either promoted their own candidacy or attacked the other party nominee.

It is important to note that nearly all of the party ads were funded with soft money. According to FEC reports, party committees reported only $20,000 in independent expenditures for the presidential race in 2000.

In Figures 2 and and 3, I calculate the percentage of ads aired in all available markets within the year. Sometimes that is only the top 75 media markets (2000) or top 100 markets (2002 – 2006), as opposed to all 210 media markets (2008 – 2012). However, if I restrict the analysis in all years to the top 75 markets, the reported percentages in later years change only slightly. Also, totals count all ads aired in the election year, inclusive of all primaries and the general election.

Another AO request (2011 – 21) initiated by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) asked if Members of Congress could directly run a Super PAC provided the funds did not support the Member’s own candidacy. The FEC did not approve of this request.

This was an agreement between the two candidates to donate campaign funds to charity if any outside organization sponsored advertisements in the race. The pact was successful in keeping ads off the air, but it did not prevent interest groups from finding loopholes in the agreement. See: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012–10–12/brown-warren-pact-undone-as-outside-groups-see-loopholes.html (Accessed 12/13/12).

The inflation adjust total in 2011 dollars is $1.07 billion.

These figures for all years exclude what is not reported to the FEC. This includes “issue advocacy” spending before 2004, and ads that feature candidates after 2004 that were publicly distributed outside the electioneering communication windows, as well as print and broadcast ads that do not meet the definition of reportable communications. One might question the inclusiveness of these totals, then. It is true that in years prior to 2012 there may have been significant sums of non-reportable electioneering that keep the totals down. But the same problem exists in 2012, and there is no reason to think that such expenditures were smaller than in previous elections.

The data are accessible at http://www.fec.gov/press/press2003/20030320party/20030103party.html (Accessed 12/1/12).

Campaign finance laws at the time prohibited parties from spending independently of candidates. This was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1996 in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC 518 US 604 (1996). Money spent in coordination with candidates, however, was and is capped. (Capped rates vary between House and Senate candidates, the latter of which depends on the number of voters in the state.)

Gregory Koger, Seth E. Masket, and Hans Noel. 2009. “Partisan webs: information exchange and party networks.” British Journal of Political Science 39: 633–653.

“Koch brothers postpone post election meeting,” Paige Lavender, The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/11/koch-brothers-_n_2277700.html (Accessed 12/14/12).

Though how much data and strategy-sharing actually happens is not really known. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that it happens and is reasonably sophisticated. And it should be noted that parties are not shut out of the data-sharing that can happen. For example, a liberal organization known as the Atlas Project collects and shares voter-contacting information with subscribers. Subscribers upload their own contacting and outreach efforts to Atlas, and subscribers can access the data (for a fee) to see what other groups have done and are doing in campaigns up and down the ballot. Parties can access the data, as well, and this serves as a sort of go-around for limits of coordination between unregulated groups and the party committees. Still, parties cannot play the lead in such efforts and are essentially reduced to support players in the network of allied organizations.

See, for example, Ken Vogel’s report, “The billion-dollar bust?” Politco, 11/7/12. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83534.html (Accessed 12/12/12).

Andrew Gelman and Gary King. 1993. “Why are American presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable”? British Journal of Political Science 23: 409–451.

For a review of the major political science predictions, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/14/obama-leads-in-at-least-eight-of-13-election-forecasts/ (Accessed 12/12/12).

Replicated plots for ads aired only in October show the same story.

Deborah Jordan Brooks with Michael Murov. 2012. “Assessing accountability in a post Citizens United Era: the effects of attack ad sponsorship by unknown indepentent groups.” American Politics Research 40 (3): 383–418; and Christopher Weber, Johanna Dunaway, and Tyler Johnson 2012. It’s all in the name: source cue ambiguity and the persuasive appeal of campaign ads, Political Behavior 34: 561–584.

Michael Franz and Travis Ridout. 2010. Political advertising and persuasion in the 2004 and 2008 presidential election, American Politics Research 38 (2): 303–329.

The creative research design was borrowed from Gregory A. Huber and Kevin Arceneaux. 2007. “Identifying the persuasive effects of presidential advertising. American Journal of Political Science 51 (4): 957–977.

One caveat concerns the identification of battleground states. This is not especially controversial in most instances, but candidates often target a second tier of states, making their exclusion as battlegrounds not exactly a random assignment of ads to counties. In all instances, I played with inclusive and exclusive lists of battleground states, and effects are quite robust. My list of battleground states in 2012 is: CO, IA, WI, OH, NH, VA, NC, and FL.

This analysis excludes congressional races, mostly because county-level data are not yet available. For the presidential investigation below, the data are current as of early December and are subject to some change as vote returns are adjusted in many places. The county-level data were purchased from Dave Leip’s Election Atlas (http://uselectionatlas.org/). I should also note that the models do not include measures of candidate visits to different counties in the fall. This is partly because the data collection for such visits in 2012 is ongoing. However, their exclusion from the models in 2004 and 2008 do not change the coefficient effects for ads in any significant way.

There is one caveat to that, however. It may not be entirely the case that the smaller effect sizes are because of the presence of an incumbent on the ballot. Might it be that ads overall were simply less effective this year? The measure treats 1000 more ads–up or down the measure–as the same, regardless of their varying levels of persuasiveness. If the measure lumps a bunch of ineffective ads in with more highly effective ones, the overall impact may be to weaken the coefficient size. Such a possibility in this election demands more investigation, however.

See, for example, “Dem donors split on 2012 strategy,” Politico, by Kenneth Vogel, 11/11/10: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1110/44980.html (Accessed 11/9/12).

“Romney spent more money on ads and got much less,” by Tom Hamburger, Washington Post, 12/12/12: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/romney-campaigns-tv-ad-strategies-criticized-in-election-postmortems/2012/12/11/a2855aec-4166-11e2-bca3-aadc9b7e29c5_story.html (Accessed 12/13/12).

Michael J. Malbin, Peter W. Brusoe, and Brendan Glavin. 2012. “Small donors, big democracy: New York City’s matching funds as a model for the nation and states,” Election Law Journal 11 (1): 3–20.

Peter Wallison and Joel Gora 2009. Better parties, better government: a realistic program for campaign finance reform, AEI Press, pp. 63, 70, 72–73.

Regarding the current system, there is a lot of misinformation in the public discourse about the influence of donors on candidates. Lots of political science research fails to find direct links between PAC donations and legislative voting, for example. See Stephen Ansolabehere, John M. de Figueiredo, and James M. Snyder 2003. “Why is there so little money in politics?,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17 (1): 105–130. But, also, there is a tendency to talk about Wall Street donations or donations from certain industries, and to presume that such donations are jointly directed. The Center for Responsive Politics aggregates contributions from individuals by reported employer and industry, for example, and while this is helpful aggregate information, it facilitates arguments about industry influence. In reality, no individual can give a candidate more than $5000 in a 2-year election. Candidates might be influenced by such dollars, or fund-raising help that comes from bundlers, but it is often less appreciated that wealthy citizens have almost no means of leveraging that wealth in a candidate’s campaign directly.

All is not rosy with Super PAC disclosure, however. They can claim 100% transparency, while taking contributions from groups that do not disclose. Imagine the Center for American Democracy PAC accepting and reporting a million dollar contribution from the Center for American Democracy 501c4. This sort of money laundering allows the PAC to claim fealty to the law, while also shielding public spotlight on its donor base.

David Primo and Jeffrey Milyo. 2006. “Campaign finance laws and political efficacy: evidence from the States,” Election Law Journal 5 (1): 23–39.

Citation Information: The Forum, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0007. Export Citation

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