This analysis focuses on broadcast advertising spending in congressional races in 2022. We discuss four patterns that characterized ads in these races. First, there was a record volume of television advertising for a midterm election. Despite frequent claims that traditional ads would begin to decline, the air war featured more spots than in 2014 and 2018. Second, Democrats continued to dominate ad totals, a trend that persisted from congressional elections in 2020 and 2018. Third, the agenda shifted to a discussion of abortion and inflation, two issues that were barely mentioned in political ads in prior cycles. Finally, outside groups remained a dominant force in many campaigns, but while their investments in prior cycles tended to be focused on Senate races, groups were also heavily involved in House races in 2022. Outside groups sponsored about 35% of all ads in House races, and they sponsored about 40% of ads in Senate races, both record highs. All told, television remains central to American elections. With each passing election, some aspects of the air war change, but the ubiquitous 30 s spot continues to be a go-to method of appealing to voters.
1 Television Advertising in the 2022 Midterms
After all was said and done, and after billions of dollars were spent on political advertising in the 2022 U.S. midterm election campaign, American politics changed mostly on the margins. All incumbent Senators won reelection (Enten 2022), and the party composition of the Senate was barely changed, with Democrats picking up one seat in Pennsylvania. Republicans did wrest control of the U.S. House (which will have large consequences for policymaking), but by the barest margin, earning only a slim majority of 222 seats. In races for governor, Democrats picked up three seats—in Arizona, Maryland and Massachusetts—while losing one seat in Nevada.
In terms of the political advertising landscape, some trends represented continuity from prior years, but a few important differences were apparent. Indeed, in this research we focus on four patterns of note that characterize televised political advertising in the U.S. in 2022 (We discuss the prevalence of digital advertising in Fowler et al. (2022) in this issue of The Forum). First, there was a record volume of television advertising for a midterm election. Second, much like prior cycles, there were imbalances in the distribution of advertising by party, with pro-Democratic ads outnumbering pro-Republican ads in many competitive races—and sometimes by considerable margins. Third, the agenda shifted to a discussion of issues that had been largely ignored in recent cycles: abortion and inflation. Finally, interest groups invested in U.S. House races at an unprecedented level such that sponsorship of ads in House races more closely resembled sponsorship of ads in Senate races, a contrast to previous cycles in which groups put disproportionately more emphasis on Senate campaigns. We elaborate on these findings, providing a wealth of data to back them up, in the sections to come.
Data for this research come from the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), which has tracked televised political advertising since 2010. The WMP receives ad data from Kantar/CMAG, a commercial firm, which provides airing-level data for each unique political advertisement on broadcast and national cable television. For instance, one can know that a particular ad sponsored by a particular candidate aired at a certain time on a certain broadcast television station in a certain media market. Kantar/CMAG and WMP conduct additional coding of each unique ad, including the issues mentioned and tone, among other variables. In addition to these ad tracking data, Kantar/CMAG supplies “competitive” data containing purchase information compiled by various vendors and supplemented when needed from the broadcast station filings with the Federal Communications Commission. These data allow us to track spending on ads on broadcast television, satellite television, local cable television and radio. (The competitive spending data do not contain spot counts for television or radio buys, so discussions of ad counts in this paper refer only to broadcast airings).
2 Record Midterm Advertising
The 2022 election cycle set a record for the volume of broadcast television advertising in U.S. House, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in a midterm, with 4.8 million total ad airings across all three of these races. Figure 1 shows airings in U.S. House races by election cycle in the left panel. Between January 6, 2021—the date of the Georgia runoff election—and November 8, 2022, which was Election Day, 1.41 million television ads aired on broadcast stations in U.S. House elections. This includes ads sponsored by candidates, political parties and outside groups. This number was a slight increase over the 1.37 million airings in the 2020 election cycle and the 1.32 million airings in the 2018 cycle.
As shown in the right panel of Figure 1, the volume of advertising in U.S. Senate races did not set a record in the 2022 election cycle (that record was set in 2020), but it did set a record for a midterm election, with 1.58 million ad airings, which was well above the 1.33 million airings in the 2018 election cycle and the 1.03 million airings in the 2014 election cycle. It also greatly exceeded the volume of ads from six years earlier, in 2016, when the same Senate seats were in play.
Figure 2 shows the volume of television airings in gubernatorial races over the past three election cycles. Because the same states hold races for governor each four years (with some at two-year intervals), these numbers speak to advertising in the same races. Yet again, the volume of advertising in 2022 set a record: 1.83 million ad airings. This was up from 1.69 million ad airings in the 2018 election cycle and 1.04 million ad airings in the 2014 election cycle. In sum, there was no evidence that campaigns were abandoning traditional broadcast television advertising in 2022—a long-time claim at this point, given declining viewership of live television broadcasts over the last decade—in favor of online, digital and social media venues. On the contrary, television ad volumes in 2022 were up from 2018 in House, Senate and gubernatorial races.
Table 1 summarizes spending on television (including broadcast, cable and satellite) and radio in the 2022 election cycle. Digital spending is excluded from this table (and is discussed in more detail in Fowler et al. (2022), included in this issue of The Forum), but the totals in Table 1 are much more inclusive than a focus on broadcast television ads given that some ad sponsors use local cable and radio to more finely target segments of the electorate. All told, we find $4.3 billion in spending in House, Senate and gubernatorial races on these media. Almost three-quarters of this was spent on broadcast television ($3.2 billion), with another 20% ($866 million) spent on cable television. Most of this cable spending was on local cable television (e.g., on ESPN in Madison, Wisconsin, or on the Hallmark Channel in Salt Lake City). Radio accounted for $164 million in spending, while satellite television, such as DIRECTV, accounted for $26.7 million.
|Broadcast TV||Cable TV||Satellite TV||Radio||Total|
|Governor||$||$978 m||$259.7 m||$28.3 m||$50.8 m||$1316.9 m|
|% (excl digital)||74.3%||19.7%||2.2%||3.9%|
|U.S. House||$||$985.8 m||$246.7 m||$8.1 m||$37.1 m||$1277.7 m|
|% (excl digital)||77.2%||19.3%||0.6%||2.9%|
|U.S. Senate||$||$1270.9 m||$360 m||$26.7 m||$76.3 m||$1,734 m|
|% (excl digital)||73.3%||20.8%||1.5%||4.4%|
|Total||$3234.7 m||$866.5 m||$63.2 m||$164.2 m||$4328.6 m|
Source: Kantar/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, for all ads in 2021 and 2022 (excluding 2021 and 2022 Georgia run-offs).
It is noteworthy that the distribution of spending across outlets in Table 1 does not vary much by election type. In statewide Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, broadcast television advertising accounted for 74% and 73%, respectively, of total television and radio spending, which was just a bit lower than the 77% of media spending on broadcast television ads in House races. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns devoted slightly higher shares of spending to radio ads compared to House campaigns, but all told the differences between statewide and House races were slight.
Still, variation across campaigns was often significant and reflects the different strategic decisions of individual campaigns (likely due, at least in part, to the differential cost of broadcast television advertising in different media markets). For example, Elissa Slotkin—a Democrat from Michigan’s 7th congressional district—spent nearly $7 million in television and radio ads between Labor Day and Election Day. Nearly all of that was for broadcast television ads in the relatively inexpensive Lansing media market, and only 6% was committed to local cable ads. In contrast, Elaine Luria in Virginia’s 2nd congressional district spent over $4.2 million on television and radio ads, with 28% of that spending in the fall election period devoted to local cable buys. Luria’s district is centered on the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News media market, which is one of the 50 largest in the U.S.
In the Senate, Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee in Georgia, spent over $16 million on television and radio ads after Labor Day. Over one-third of that spending was on local cable. His Democratic opponent, incumbent Raphael Warnock, spent nearly $35 million in the same period, with 26% of that for local cable ads. By contrast, the Democratic incumbent in Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, spent over $18 million on radio and television ads, but only 7% was for local cable buys.
3 Democratic Ad Advantages
In the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, we found substantial Democratic ad advantages in the most competitive U.S. House and U.S. Senate races (Fowler, Franz, and Ridout 2020; Ridout, Fowler, and Franz 2021). The story was the same in 2022. Figure 3 shows the volume of Republican ad airings plotted against the volume of Democratic ad airings in each Senate race for the general election period (between each state’s primary date and Election Day). Included are ads sponsored by candidates, parties and groups. Those observations above the 45-degree line indicate races in which there were more pro-Democratic than pro-Republican advertisements. In every competitive race—including those in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada—the Democratic candidate was advantaged.
The difference in ad sponsorship is quite large in several states. In Arizona, for instance, 88,400 ads aired that backed Democrat Mark Kelly during the general election period compared to 33,000 that backed Republican candidate Blake Masters. In Georgia, there were 93,000 airings that backed Democrat Raphael Warnock and 47,000 that supported Republican Herschel Walker. It is difficult to assert decisively that advertising made the difference in these and other Senate races, as we know that ad effects, though measurable, tend to be fairly small in top-of-ballot races (Sides, Vavreck, and Warshaw 2022; Ridout and Franz 2011). Still, in these states viewers were seeing, on average, about two pro-Democratic ads for each pro-Republican ad. It seems reasonable to infer that Democratic candidates did better in these campaigns than if Republicans had matched their investments in television spots.
Because the race for the House was so close—and because the effects of ads tend to be slightly larger in House races than in Senate campaigns (Sides, Vavreck, and Warshaw 2022)—one wonders to what extent the deployment of political advertising made a difference in 2022. Figure 4 displays the volume of Republican general election ad airings (along the x-axis) and the volume of Democratic general election ad airings (along the y-axis) in races that were deemed “lean Democratic” by The Cook Political Report in its final November 7 ratings. In all but one of these 15 races, there was more pro-Democratic than pro-Republican advertising, as shown by the points above the 45-degree line. This is not surprising given that donors and groups tend to support those candidates with the best chance of winning, and in all of these races, Democratic candidates were at least slight favorites. Figure 5 displays the same data but for the “lean Republican” races. Democratic candidates had an ad advantage in five of those twelve races. Democrats, then, were holding their own even in those races that favored the Republican candidate.
What about tossup races? Figure 6 shows the volume of Republican and Democratic advertising in these races during the general election period. Thirty-six House races fell into this category (26 of which were held by Democrats going into the election), but in only eight of them did pro-Republican advertising exceed pro-Democratic advertising. It is plausible, then, that a lack of Republican advertising in these highly competitive House seats contributed to Republicans’ underperformance relative to expectations in the U.S. House (the so-called “red wave”), given the underlying fundamentals of the election.
At the same time, one might make the case that had Democrats better distributed their advertising dollars in the closing weeks, they could have maintained their majority in the House of Representatives. Did Democrats triage too much in the House? The data displayed in Figure 7, which shows the volume of Republican and Democratic advertising in the final two weeks of the campaign, suggest they did not. In 29 of those 36 “tossup” races, there was more Democratic than Republican advertising in the final two weeks of the campaign. Clearly, Democrats were not scaling back their advertising relative to Republicans during the final period of the 2022 cycle.
This is confirmed also by looking at investments from outside groups and the party committees. We examine their efforts in more detail below, but we look here at the efforts of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), along with Congressional Leadership Fund (the top pro-Republican group active in House races) and the House Majority PAC (the top pro-Democratic group active in House races). The Congressional Leadership Fund aired ads in 27 toss-up races in September 2022; they were active in 34 of the 36 most competitive races in the final two weeks. The NRCC expanded its efforts from five toss-ups in September to ads in 25 toss-up races in the final two weeks of the campaign. On the Democratic side, the DCCC was on the air in 14 toss-ups in September but 19 in the final two weeks. House Majority PAC expanded its efforts from 21 campaigns in September to 32 of the 36 most competitive races in the closing two weeks.
4 Abortion and Economy/Inflation/Spending Dominate Issue Discussion
Different election years feature different issue agendas, depending on the broader electoral and political conditions in the election year. For example, in 2018 health care topped the agenda, with Democratic candidates and their allies in congressional elections mentioning the issue in more than half of their ad airings in the fall portion of the campaign (Fowler, Franz, and Ridout 2022, Table 3.5, p.55), a reaction to President Trump’s efforts to repeal Obamacare.
The issue agenda in 2022 was somewhat different than past midterms. One important issue in 2022 was abortion, which was thrust onto the agenda in the in late spring and early summer when an early draft of the Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked and then the Court issued that ruling—overturning Roe v Wade—in June. Twenty-one percent of ads in federal races mentioned abortion during the fall campaign in 2022, 35.7% on the Democratic side and 2.1% on the Republican side.
This contrasts sharply with 2018, when Democrats referenced the issue in just 0.8% of airings in the fall campaign and Republicans discussed it only in 2.1% of airings. In 2014, abortion was mentioned in 7.2% of pro-Democratic airings, and in only 1.2% of GOP ads. In 2010, Democrats mentioned abortion in 5.3% of ads, while Republicans barely mentioned the issue at all (0.6% of airings).
How did the candidates and their party and group allies change their issue emphasis over the course of the campaign? Figure 8 displays discussion of six important issues in each week between January 1 and Election Day in U.S. House and U.S. Senate races. The blue line shows the percentage of pro-Democratic ads (including candidates, parties, and groups) that mention each issue, while the red line does the same for pro-Republican ads. Clearly, there are some visible changes over time in issue emphasis between the parties.
During the first third of the year, Republican ads were much more likely to discuss abortion than were Democratic ads. But in early May, after the publication of the leaked draft of the Dobbs decision, Democratic discussion of abortion rose considerably. After that decision was published on June 24, Democratic discussion of abortion rose even more while Republican discussion of abortion receded toward almost nil by the final weeks of the campaign.
The other big change over time was the rise in Republican discussion of inflation, the economy and the budget (including government spending). Many Republican ads combined discussion of all three, making the argument that massive government spending by Democrats was responsible for inflation and was bad for the economy. While this argument took off on the Republican side during the early summer, discussion of these issues did not rise on the Democratic side—and for inflation, dropped off. Inflation has not been a top election issue in recent cycles for either Democrats or Republicans, most notably because inflation has not been a macroeconomic concern for some time. At least since the financial crisis in 2008, annual inflation rates have tended to hover around 2%, far below the nearly 9% inflation rate in 2022.
Discussion of other issues remained stable throughout the campaign. For instance, health care was consistently mentioned in at least 20% of pro-Democratic ads in almost every week of the campaign, while the issue was consistently ignored in pro-Republican advertising. Public safety and crime as an issue grew slightly in importance in pro-Republican and pro-Democratic advertising. Although pro-Republican ads mentioned public safety more often, the issue was far from ignored by Democratic advertising. In most weeks, at least 15% of pro-Democratic ads mentioned the issues, and it was found in over 20% of pro-Democratic ads in many weeks.
The prevalence of abortion in pro-Democratic advertising, as noted, was something unique to 2022. In 2020, abortion was not in the top ten most mentioned issues by either the Biden or Trump campaigns (Ridout Fowler, and Franz 2021). Still, it is important to note that mentions of abortion in 2022 varied considerably across candidates. Figure 9 shows the percentage of Senate ad airings during the general election in each state that mentioned abortion, with pro-Democratic ads shown in the dark grey circles and pro-Republican ads shown in the light grey diamonds. One important finding is that in almost all states, abortion was more often mentioned in pro-Democratic than in pro-Republican ads. The only exceptions were some extremely Republican and conservative states, such as Arkansas, Idaho, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Second, those states in which abortion was mentioned the most (as a share of ads aired) were fairly liberal states, such as Maryland, Washington, Connecticut, Colorado and Oregon. That said, abortion was mentioned frequently in Republican-leaning Florida, where 38% of pro-Democratic ads and 17% of pro-Republican ads mentioned the issue. Abortion was also mentioned in about 30% of pro-Democratic ads in Wisconsin, which is a perennial swing state.
5 Outside Groups Ramp up House Advertising
Outside groups were a big presence in House and Senate elections in 2022. In the 2021–2022 cycle, outside groups sponsored over 35% of all ads. This is a record share of airings, topping 2012 when outside groups accounted for just under 30% of the spots on broadcast television (Figure 10). The figure includes all federal ads in each cycle, including presidential airings in those election years. While group-sponsored ads as a percentage of total ads spiked in 2022, party-sponsored independent expenditures on television remained at near-record lows, with just over 6% of all ads from the traditional party committees (a bit up from the 2020 total of 5%). The party totals exclude coordinated ads between parties and candidates, and in 2022 coordinated spots accounted for an additional 5% in airings. Even when combining coordinated and independent expenditures from parties, though, groups still aired more than three times the number of spots.
Figure 11 shows the involvement of groups and parties broken down by House and Senate races in each cycle back to 2000. (In this figure, coordinated spots are grouped with party independent expenditures, to show the total effort of party committees.) The most notable finding in 2022 is the sharp rise in the percentage of ads in House races sponsored by groups. One-third of ads aired in House races were group-sponsored in 2022, up from less than one in four in the 2020 election cycle. The pattern of ad sponsorship in House races has started to resemble the pattern in Senate races—but with a lag of a few election cycles.
For instance, groups first accounted for a greater percentage of advertising in Senate races than parties in 2010, but it was not until 2018 that groups surpassed parties in importance in House races. By 2022, group involvement in House races had become similar to levels of group involvement in Senate races, which has been above 30% since the 2014 election cycle. This is consistent with a nationalization of House races whereby super PACs and 501(c) organizations accept unlimited funds primarily from large-dollar donors and use those dollars to blast television ads into the most competitive House races. That is a much different world than one in which candidates or their parties account for most of the advertising, paid for by donations from traditional political action committees (PACs) or small-dollar donors.
Outside group airings in 2022 tended to come from super PACs, as shown in Figure 12. Nearly 700,000 airings were sponsored by super PACs, over 60% of the nearly 1.1 million spots from outside groups in the cycle. 501 (c) (4)s and Carey PACs made up the bulk of the remaining airings. Carey PACs are political action committees that operate both a traditional PAC and super PAC as affiliated entities. They have become more relevant in the past two election cycles, largely because they offer a group the convenience of making direct candidate contributions through a traditional PAC and the opportunity to make significant investments on the air with donations from wealthy donors through the super PAC affiliate.
The twenty groups airing the most ads in 2021–2022 cycle are shown in Table 2. As noted earlier, the most active groups in House races were the Congressional Leadership Fund and the House Majority PAC. In Senate races, the top two groups were the Senate Leadership Fund and the Senate Majority PAC. In many ways these four groups have come to be resemble the four traditional party committees, in that Democrats have a House and Senate Majority PAC and Republicans have a chamber-specific Leadership Fund. But these groups, which are at least nominally affiliated with the political parties (but do not formally coordinate with them), were not the only groups that spent heavily in 2020. The super PAC Club for Growth Action aired almost 50,000 airings, the vast majority of them in U.S. Senate races. One Nation, a conservative dark money 501(c) organization, sponsored almost 40,000 airings—all of them in U.S. Senate races. Another conservative group, American Action Network, placed over 25,000 airings in House races. Also notable was spending by the Kansas Values Institute, which aired almost 25,000 ads on behalf of Democratic governor Laura Kelly in her run for re-election in Kansas.
|First aired||Last aired||Total spots||Senate ads||House ads||Governor ads||Disclosure type||Group type|
|Congressional Leadership Fund||2/18/22||11/8/22||135,429||0||135,429||0||Partial||SuperPAC|
|House Majority PAC||4/12/22||11/8/22||98,100||0||98,100||0||Partial||Carey|
|Senate Leadership Fund||8/19/22||11/8/22||91,542||91,542||0||0||Partial||SuperPAC|
|Senate Majority PAC||10/20/21||11/8/22||75,655||75,655||0||0||Partial||SuperPAC|
|Club for Growth Action||3/7/21||11/8/22||48,641||39,252||7927||1462||Partial||SuperPAC|
|Stop the Repub. Recall of Gov Newsom||6/17/21||9/14/21||44,781||0||0||44,781||Full||State IE comm.|
|American Action Network||5/7/21||8/8/22||26,105||0||26,105||0||None||501c|
|Kansas Values Institute||4/12/22||11/8/22||24,472||0||0||24,472||None||501c|
|Put MI First||7/27/22||11/8/22||21,797||0||0||21,797||Full||State IE comm.|
|Coulda Been Worse LLC||9/9/22||11/7/22||18,256||0||0||18,256||None||Corp.|
|Saving Arizona PAC||10/5/21||11/8/22||17,790||17,790||0||0||Full||SuperPAC|
|Alliance for Common Sense||8/11/22||11/8/22||16,959||0||0||16,959||Partial||527|
|United Democracy Project||4/22/22||11/8/22||16,889||0||16,889||0||Partial||SuperPAC|
|Wisconsin Truth PAC||5/19/22||11/8/22||16,831||16,831||0||0||Full||SuperPAC|
|A Stronger New Mexico||7/9/22||11/8/22||12,830||0||0||12,830||Full||527|
|Top 20 total as percent of all group ads||54.5%||56.3%||62.4%||40.5%|
Source: Kantar/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, with group classifications from OpenSecrets.
An important component of outside group airings on television concerns the reporting windows mandated by federal campaign finance laws. Ads that mention or picture a federal candidate and that air on broadcast television within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election are reportable to the Federal Election Commission. Ads aired outside those windows, if they do not include so-called express advocacy messages, are not reported publicly and are therefore much harder to track and roll into spending estimates in elections. (In gubernatorial campaigns, the rules for groups vary across states, with different mandates on who can sponsor ads and what reporting is required).
As such, 501 (c) (4) groups tend to stop advertising in federal races within the reporting windows. It is important to note that in the aftermath of Citizens United v FEC in 2010, 501 (c) (4) groups are permitted to air express advocacy messages at any point in the campaign, and they are not required to report publicly their list of donors. As a result, 501 (c) (4) organizations are not significantly constrained by these 30-day and 60-day reporting windows. But 501(c) (4) groups offer donors the advantage of anonymity, and by avoiding expenditure reports on the FEC website, these groups are also able to avoid significant scrutiny by journalists and citizens. As such, they tend to triage their investments in elections, first by sponsoring ads earlier in the cycle and then by moving resources to allied super PACs for ad buys later in the cycle.
This is clearly visible in Figures 13 and 14, which show the volume and within-group share by donor disclosure type, as coded by OpenSecrets. Full-disclosure groups are those that disclose contributor lists to the Federal Election Commission, such as traditional PACs and super PACs. Non-disclosing “dark money” groups are not required to disclose publicly their donors. As noted, these are most often 501(c) (4) non-profits. Partial-disclosure groups disclose their donors, but they also accept contributions from dark money sources. For example, House Majority PAC is a super PAC that must report to the FEC, but the group also accepts contributions from other groups that do not report their donors. For example, these partial disclosure groups often accept contributions from 501(c) (4) groups. This makes it hard to locate the underlying source of the money. A donor who prefers to remain anonymous can contribute to a 501(c) (4), which might sponsor ads praising or attacking a candidate early in the election cycle. The spending for those ads is not reported to the Federal Election Commission. As the election nears, and the 30-day or 60-day window opens, the 501(c) (4) shifts the funds to an allied super PAC, who reports the group as a donor, keeping the ultimate source of the money out of the public spotlight.
Figures 13 and 14 show that spending by full disclosure and dark money groups—as a percentage of group spending each week—was higher earlier in the election year, but spending by partial-disclosure groups was much more common during the fall general election period. Dark money groups generally drop from the airwaves, in part—as noted—to avoid mandates for disclosing any election-related spending in the general election period. Indeed, the shift in the profile of groups on the air earlier in the election year compared to later in the election year is striking. Of note, also, is the significant increase in ad volume from groups in the closing weeks of the election season compared to mid-year or earlier in the year (See the top panels of Figures 13 and 14).
6 Summing Up
We made several observations about political advertising in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. One important, yet perhaps surprising, finding was that there was record television advertising for a midterm. Will these high levels of television advertising continue into the near future, in spite of the rise of digital? We believe they will. Admittedly, television viewing has declined (Bridge 2022) and especially among younger age groups (Fatemi 2022), but the perception among many campaign practitioners is that television remains an effective way to reach voters, especially given the perception that fewer people are opening their mail or answering the door when campaign volunteers knock. Investing in the air war is a tried-and-true strategy, especially for candidates and groups with big war chests that must spend their dollars quickly. It might seem risky to forego traditional ad buys, fearing that a competitor will earn the advantage in reaching large swaths of the electorate. At the same time, the partisan divide in Congress remains close, which means that the stakes are high: control of the House or Senate could realistically shift each election cycle. Moreover, Congress has failed to act on comprehensive campaign finance reform that might in some ways limit spending on advertising. It is extremely easy for groups (sometimes not much more than legal entities on paper) to receive multi-million-dollar donations from individuals—and then spend those dollars on big advertising buys (which in turn earn more press for the group than a more finely-tuned digital ad strategy).
A second finding of ours was large Democratic ad advantages, a pattern that continued from 2018 to 2020. One wonders to what extent this is a Trump phenomenon in the sense that antipathy toward Trump is the greatest fundraiser that Democrats have. Given that Trump has declared that he is running for president in 2024—and that many view a Trump win as an existential threat to democracy—we expect that Democratic donors will keep on giving, resulting in plenty of cash for Democratic candidates in 2024.
Third, we found that abortion and inflation were among the top issues mentioned in advertising in 2022. Few would have predicted these issues at the top of the agenda two years ago, but the real world intervened, giving both parties a potentially effective campaign issue. It would be somewhat foolish to predict which issues will top the agenda in 2024 given that issue agendas respond to the state of the world. That said, given the narrative that Democrats’ campaigning on abortion in 2022 may have led to a much better-than-expected outcome for them, abortion may remain near the top of the issue agenda. This may be even more the case in those states where attitudes about abortion may drive turnout through a ballot measure or constitutional amendment vote.
The steep rise of interest group involvement in House races in 2022 was a final key finding. We believe this is likely to continue due, in part, to the nationalization of American politics. House elections are less about finding the right candidate for a district these days and more about party control of Congress, and thus outcomes in particular House districts are perceived as important nationally. Moreover, the lack of regulation of large donations to groups makes it as easy as ever for these groups to raise money—and spend it on political ads.
While the notable things about political advertising in 2022 often represented changes from the past, such as the rise of group spending in House races, sometimes they represented a continuity, such as the presence of Democratic ad advantages. Indeed, there were many continuities in political advertising in the 2022 midterms. One was the tone of advertising. Despite public (and sometimes media) perceptions that each election is the nastiest ever, the tone of advertising—the percentage of ads that were negative (mention only the opponent), contrast (mention the favored and opposing candidate) and positive (mention only the favored candidate)—in 2022 was highly similar to the tone of advertising in the past five election cycles in gubernatorial, Senate and House races. We show these breakdowns in the Appendix. (See Figures A1-A3)
All told, television remains central to American elections. With each passing election, some aspects of the air war change, but the ubiquitous 30-s spot continues to be a go-to method of appealing to voters. That said, the delivery of ads during campaigns is certainly changing, and the increasing number of ways in which Americans may encounter advertising will only complicate scholarly efforts to understand the election advertising landscape.
We thank the entire Wesleyan Media Project team for all of their time and effort in make our tracking and analysis of election advertising possible. In particular, we are especially indebted to Laura Baum for more than a decade of service and partnership as Project Manager and as Associate Director, which largely enabled both the growth in our team and the expansion in our ability to track advertising across platforms beyond TV. We also thank Breeze Floyd, Pavel Oleinikov, Markus Neumann and Jielu Yao, our human coding team and our Delta Lab computational team. The Wesleyan Media Project partners with OpenSecrets to assess different sponsors of advertising activity, particularly outside groups. The views presented here are solely those of the authors, as are any errors.
Appendix: Ad tone in 2022 elections
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