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Yes, there are a lot of campaign ads

September 30, 2012 12:10 am


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This frame grab from an AP video shows a Barack Obama campaign ad on a television screen in Roanoke.


Television-watching Virginians in this election year might sympathize with the Grinch who stole Christmas, in his rant about all the "noise, noise, noise, noise!"

The noise is the political ads and if it seems like you're seeing more of them this year than ever before, that's because you are.

There is more outside group money going into more ads in this election than ever before, and Virginia--a swing state in this presidential election and with a tight, high-profile U.S. Senate race--is seeing a healthy portion of it.

According to Federal Elections Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, so far in 2012 superPACs have raised $390 million and spent $275 million on this year's campaigns.

Count other types of outside groups, and the amount of spending jumps to about $480 million.

Analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, using the CRP data, shows those outside groups have spent $37 million so far on TV ads in Virginia alone.

About half of that is money from groups that don't disclose who their donors are; the other half is from superPACs that do disclose.

The result is that voters are seeing an unprecedented slew of ads, most negative against another candidate, frequently misleading about the facts, and with little disclosure about who exactly is behind the ad.

"Things are completely out of control this election cycle," said University of Mary Washington political analyst Stephen Farnsworth. "There is so much money sloshing around, and it's coming from all kinds of sources. People don't know about donors, they don't know what these organizations are. Most organizations have these innocuous names that give no hint" of their ideology.

The big difference this year is rooted in a pair of court rulings in 2010. Through the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and a subsequent appeals court ruling in the vs. FEC case, individuals, corporations and unions can now donate unlimited money to independent-expenditure groups, as long as those groups don't coordinate with candidates or campaigns.

New independent groups, collecting and spending millions of dollars, quickly surfaced. Some, like so-called superPACs, are organized in such a way that they must disclose who their donors are; others are organized as nonprofits, and don't have to disclose their donors.

These superPACs and independent groups were working in the 2010 midterm elections, but this is the first presidential year in which they've existed.

So you have superPACs like Restore our Future, a PAC that supports Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney--it was founded by several Romney staffers--and has so far spent nearly $85 million to help fend off Romney's challengers in the primary and now help him in the general election.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Restore Our Future spent $40 million attacking Romney's Republican opponents, and $31 million against Democrats.

Priorities USA Action is the top pro-Obama superPAC, says CRP, founded by ex-Obama aides to counter the high-dollar spending from conservative PACs.

Priorities USA Action has spent $30 million, all against Republicans.

According to CRP's data, the superPACs have spent nearly $200 million for conservative viewpoints this year, and $70.5 million for liberal viewpoints.

The superPACs are the ones that disclose their donors. The top 100 individual superPAC donors comprise 1 percent of the groups' donors but 73 percent of the donations.

Other outside groups that are organized as nonprofits, similar to the superPACs, are spending millions, but they don't disclose their donors.

In Virginia, according to VPAP, conservative groups are outspending liberal ones three to one.

All of this spending on political advertising might go less noticed if the ads were positive. But they're largely negative. Nationally, the outside groups have spent about $378 million on ads that criticize other candidates (of both parties), versus $100 million on ads that are positive for candidates.

That doesn't even count the negative ads coming from campaigns themselves.

Often, negative ads are misleading, inaccurate, or out of context--on both sides of the aisle.

Take, for example, an ad from the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action, which essentially blames Romney for a woman's death because her husband lost his insurance when he was laid off from his company after Bain Capital bought it. But fact checkers say the man's wife had her own insurance through her job, and wasn't diagnosed with cancer until several years after he was laid off by Bain.

A Romney ad accuses Obama of "gutting" the work requirement for welfare, when fact checkers say Obama gave states greater flexibility to shape their own work requirements for welfare.

Why all the negativity? Because it works, Farnsworth said.

"What a negative ad can do is get those people who already don't like a politician to dislike him more. Maybe they'll volunteer, maybe they'll donate money, or maybe they'll turn out to vote we live in very partisan times, and candidates from both parties have decided that negative ads are the best way to reach voters."

The independent groups have less impetus than the candidates themselves to ensure that ads are fair, Farnsworth said.

"If you're a candidate and you run an ad that's false, the consequences to your campaign are much larger than if you're a third-party shadow organization doing the same thing," he said.

Farnsworth thinks there should be more requirements for outside groups to disclose their donors, and to more prominently display their names in their advertisements.

"It seems to me what the Supreme Court has done has given us the worst of both worlds," Farnsworth said. "If you allow huge amounts of money into politics like this, it really undermines the health of the democracy to allow virtually unlimited donations into politics without a disclosure mechanism to let people know who's spending how much, who's donating how much. If 2012 teaches us anything about campaign finance, it's that the U.S. is in great need of transparency in terms of who is raising money and who is spending money for what purpose."

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

To check the accuracy of political ads, look at some fact-checking organizations:

To look into more independent-expenditure groups' campaign finance, check the Center for Responsive Politics and VPAP:

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.