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Playing the Slots

From my story in this week's National Journal Magazine:

In politics, not all money is created equal. Faced with the prospect of outside groups funneling millions of dollars into television advertisements, Senate candidates should be grateful for that fact. It may be the last opportunity they have to keep control of their campaigns.

Federal Communications Commission rules allow candidates to purchase TV ads at the "lowest unit rate." Outside groups--the 501(c)(4) organizations and super PACs that collectively will spend more than $100 million on televised attack ads against Senate candidates this year--must buy at market cost, which spikes when demand is high. That means a given candidate's dollar goes further than a dollar spent by an outside group...

Counterintuitively, it may be candidates in lower-cost states that aren't competitive in the White House race who face the biggest threat from super PACs. In those markets, the low cost per point will attract more independent-expenditure spending, driving up the competition and the cost for outside groups to advertise. But it's also good news for candidates, whose costs in those markets will be determined relative to the typically less expensive nonpolitical commercials...

Montana is a good example. A review of fall ad reservations reveals that Tester and Rehberg are paying about $38 per GRP in the Missoula market, while outside groups are paying roughly $70 per GRP.

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