Press Releases

Without Single-Candidate Super PACs, Messaging is Controlled by Candidates and More Positive

Jan 07, 2020

In early 2019, End Citizens United led a coalition of groups in sending an open letter to the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates urging them “to declare that you oppose single-candidate super PACs in the Democratic presidential primary – and will publicly and privately demand that any super PAC designed to support your primary campaign be shut down.” 

A recent New York Times story and an analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project reveal that outside groups have played a significantly smaller role in the Democratic primary compared to the same point in the 2016 presidential primary. The reports also show that, as a result, the ads have been overwhelmingly positive compared to the 2016 presidential primary. According to the Wesleyan report, over 80 percent of TV ad spending in 2015 came from outside groups, and only 4 percent of TV ad spending in 2019 have come from such groups.

The New York Times: Hate Negative Political Ads? This Is the Primary for You

Four years ago in Iowa and New Hampshire, a political circular firing squad erupted during nearly every prime-time commercial break. Republican presidential candidates and their allied super PACs unleashed a cacophony of personal, caustic attack ads as they sought to break through in a historically large field.

This year, with an even larger field on the Democratic side, the tone on televisions in Iowa and New Hampshire is decidedly different. Almost universally, the Democratic ads seek to address and quell a source of national anxiety — be it about President Trump, prescription drug costs, corruption, foreign policy or a changing economy.

And they’re doing it politely.
The relative comity among the candidates on the airwaves comes after Republican presidential primaries in 2012 and 2016 that were overwhelmingly negative and seemed to signal a new era for presidential campaigns. With the injection of billions of dollars into such races after the Citizens United decision, leading to the proliferation of deep-pocketed super PACs, an explosion of negative advertising was becoming the norm. The so-called Eleventh Commandment popularized by President Ronald Reagan, which declared that “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” seemed destined for history.

Indeed, at this point in the 2016 presidential primary, Republican candidates and outside groups had spent $55 million on ads, according to Advertising Analytics. But $22 million of that alone came from Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Jeb Bush, which ran a torrent of negative ads about other candidates.

Click here to read the full article.

Wesleyan Media Project: TV Ad Volume Way Up Over 2016

Table 2: TV Ad Spending and Airings by Cycle

In contrast to the race for the 2016 presidential nomination, outside groups (which are not entitled to television stations’ lowest unit rate like candidates are) have largely stayed out of the race for the 2020 nomination. At this stage of the presidential nomination race in 2016, outside group money dominated; 80.5 percent of election-related TV ad spending (and 63.8 percent of airings) were from groups. Groups such as Right to Rise, a super PAC that supported Jeb Bush, were spending multi-millions. But in the current race, groups are largely absent, as only 4 percent of TV ad spending and 1.4 percent of airings were from groups.

Click here to read the full analysis.