Looking at the Election Ad Spend: 2012 Presidential Campaign Wrap-Up


Now that the 2012 election is behind us, it’s time to shed a little light on the amount of spending that took place in this year’s race to the White House. According to an article published in the November 12 issue of Advertising Age, media raked in record dollars during the 2012 election season, but unless Congress passes major reforms, the political-ad ceiling is nowhere in sight.

In terms of overall spending, it is estimated that some $6 billion was spend on the 2012 election across all media according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Kantar Media also estimates that $1.1 billion was spend on local TV in 12 states, plus another $200 million for local cable. These amounts do seem staggering, but in a time when ad dollars relate to votes, every second of airtime was expected to have a significant influence over the election results.

Several reports have come out about how this year’s presidential election broke records in terms of political-ad spend, with preliminary estimates at just over $953 million spend on presidential ads on broadcast TV alone. The smashes the forecast of $700 million presented by the National Journal back in June. The actual spend breakdown reveals that presidential TV ads cost Republicans around $479 million while the Democratic Party spent just around $396 million.

According the Jack Poor, VP of strategic planning at TVB, a trade organization representing TV-station groups and local outlets, “I don’t think 10 years ago anyone would have dreamed [candidates] would be focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire as election makers and not be putting Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri and Minnesota into play.”

Not only was the total cost of the election record breaking, the rate at which spending had accelerated in the closing weeks of the election was like no other in history. In particular, outside groups were spending like crazy for and against the two main presidential candidates. Spending had grown from $19 million per week in early September to $33 million per week in early October to $70 million during the week beginning October 21.

Based on information found on the website OpenSecrets.org, spending in Congressional races was projected to increase slightly in 2012. House and Senate candidates combined is projected spend about $1.82 billion, up from $1.81 in 2010. House campaign spending alone will total nearly $1.1 billion, a slight increase of 3 percent more over 2010. In the Senate, spending by candidates will approach $743 million, which is down about 7 percent compared to 2010.”

One factor that may never really be accounted for in regards to campaign spending is how much money some secretive organizations spent on ads. There exists a political underbelly of non-profit organizations that many believe still contribute funds toward “non-political” activities, that may indeed still be used to further the aspirations of political candidates.

“In addition to the spending reported by nonprofits, however, at least $100-200 million more has been spent by these groups on what is referred to as “issue advocacy” that identifies a federal candidate, but they were not required to report these activities to the FEC,” said Viveca Novak from the Center for Responsive Politics. “This is of concern because a number of these organizations — particularly those that have organized since the Citizens United ruling, are spending huge sums and have super PAC counterparts — are primarily political in nature.”

More alarming than the secret spending (some of which can be pieced together based on studies of political ads and will eventually be summarized in tax reports to the Internal Revenue Service), is the secret source of this money. Because there are no federal requirements to disclose the origin and flow of this form of campaign money, Novak posits, voters in 2012 have been left with no real means to judge the credibility of the message or consider any hidden agendas leading those donors to give.



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