Why Campaigns Have the Edge Over Super PACs on TV

Some stations are already charging super PACs almost 10 times as much as campaigns to advertise at the same times.

Dozens of televisions display a political ad supporting then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Dec. 27, 2011 in Urbandale, Iowa.
National Journal
Adam Wollner and Scott Bland
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Adam Wollner and Scott Bland
Aug. 19, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

In the first week of Janu­ary, Iowa view­ers of The To­night Show Star­ring Jimmy Fal­lon will get a dose of polit­ic­al ad­vert­ising with the night’s en­ter­tain­ment.

Both Marco Ru­bio‘s cam­paign and the su­per PAC back­ing Scott Walk­er have already re­served ad time dur­ing The To­night Show for the weeks be­fore Iowa’s caucuses, ac­cord­ing to con­tracts with the NBC sta­tion in Des Moines. While the two groups will air their mes­sages to the same audi­ence at the same time, be­hind the scenes, there’s a ma­jor dif­fer­ence.

Ru­bio’s cam­paign is set to pay $150 each for its 30-second spots. The pro-Walk­er PAC is on the hook for nearly 10 times that much: $1,300 apiece.

That’s be­cause of a fed­er­al law that pro­tects cam­paigns’ abil­ity to talk to voters by guar­an­tee­ing them the “low­est unit rate” on TV ads near elec­tion time. But those laws con­tain no such pro­tec­tions for su­per PACs, which are at the whims of mar­ket rates that go sky-high be­fore elec­tions.

Su­per PACs are as­cend­ant in this pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, rais­ing more money and some­times tak­ing on more prom­in­ent roles than the can­did­ates they sup­port. But des­pite their gaudy fun­drais­ing and spend­ing fig­ures, the dol­lars they pour in­to TV ad­vert­ising will only buy a frac­tion of the ac­tu­al time on TV that the of­fi­cial cam­paigns can get them­selves.

The price dis­par­ity is already glar­ing in New Hamp­shire, where the su­per PAC back­ing John Kasich ran Ju­ly ads along­side TV spots from Ben Car­son and Chris Christie‘s cam­paigns. While Christie paid $700 per spot dur­ing the 5 p.m. news on WMUR, ac­cord­ing to sta­tion re­cords, Kasich’s PAC paid $5,000. Even ac­count­ing for the fact that the pro-Kasich ads were double-length, the su­per PAC still paid more than 3.5 times as much for the same slot.

Kasich’s PAC paid nearly five times more than Car­son’s cam­paign to ad­vert­ise dur­ing the same WMUR early-morn­ing pro­gram, Day­break.

This gap is only likely to grow as more cam­paigns and out­side groups start ad­vert­ising heav­ily. Right now, the air­waves are re­l­at­ively calm, but the pro-Walk­er su­per PAC’s To­night Show rate high­lights what’s to come.

Su­per PACs are rais­ing un­pre­ced­en­ted sums to sup­port 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, and soon they’re go­ing to start spend­ing it in earn­est—par­tic­u­larly the group back­ing Jeb Bush, which is plan­ning to start over $10 mil­lion in early-state ad­vert­ising in Septem­ber.

As de­mand in­creases, so will the prices—es­pe­cially for su­per PACs. “As high as the rates ap­pear to be for su­per PACs and oth­er out­side groups now, they may wind up go­ing still high­er,” said Eliza­beth Wil­ner, seni­or vice pres­id­ent of Kantar Me­dia, which tracks polit­ic­al ad spend­ing.

“Just be­cause a su­per PAC is com­mit­ting to pay x amount for a spot down the road today, it doesn’t mean the sta­tion won’t come back and say, ‘If you still want to keep that spot, it’s go­ing to cost you more,’ ” Wil­ner con­tin­ued.

Even if a group re­serves a spe­cif­ic time slot, TV sta­tions can still give it to a high­er bid­der if one comes along. “A spot is nev­er sold un­til the ad ac­tu­ally airs,” Wil­ner said.

Still, by re­serving ad time early, cam­paigns and out­side groups are at the very least en­sur­ing that they will be in­volved in the bid­ding pro­cess for coveted times when many tar­get voters are watch­ing TV.

Early-morn­ing and even­ing news pro­grams in Des Moines will also get plenty of at­ten­tion, which is already con­spicu­ous in the high re­ser­va­tion prices that PACs are see­ing. The Walk­er su­per PAC re­served ad time on WHO’s 6 a.m. show, Today in Iowa, and its 5 p.m. news show for $1,775 per ad in the two weeks be­fore the Iowa caucuses. That’s nearly eight times as much as the $225 rate the sta­tion quoted to Ru­bio’s cam­paign.

Over­all, Ru­bio’s team has re­served 218 ad slots on WHO from Jan. 5-11 for just un­der $48,000; thanks to the ever-rising su­per PAC rates, Walk­er’s Un­in­tim­id­ated PAC has re­served many few­er ads (83) for much more money (over $84,000). It and oth­er su­per PACs might out­spend op­pon­ents dur­ing those crit­ic­al weeks—but they will get far less in re­turn.

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