December 15, 2000
Party "Soft Money" from Corporations and Labor Unions Restricted by Law to Party Building Fuels $79.9 million in Ads for Candidates
Bush Uses Spending Advantage to Buy $11 Million of Ads in California Loss; Gore Outspends Bush on TV Ads to Win Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington, and Other Battlegrounds
The 2000 election is the first in the history of the current regulatory regime where more television advertising dollars were spent by the major national political parties than by their chosen candidates, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice and Prof. Kenneth Goldstein. The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee together spent $79.9 million on television ads in the 2000 presidential campaign, far more than the $67.1 million spent by the campaigns of Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore, the study says.
The vast majority of money spent by the parties on television ads was "soft money," the unregulated and unlimited party donations from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. By law, soft money is to be used only for party-building activities. The TV ads purchased by the Bush and Gore campaigns during the general election were funded exclusively with taxpayer dollars provided to the candidates, under a 1974 law, in exchange for their promises not to raise or spend money from other sources.
Though the parties spent substantial sums on television ads for the first time in the 1996 Clinton-Dole presidential contest, combined spending by the parties trailed spending by the candidates $48.8 million to $67.3 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting. One election cycle later, party soft money now buys the lion's share of the ads for the presidential candidates.
"Soft money has become the loophole that swallowed the law," says E. Joshua Rosen-kranz, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. "The players that are legally barred from running any ads for candidates are now buying most of the air time, and illegal money is now more prevalent in our elections than legal money. The new Congress needs to get very serious, very quickly about ending this travesty of a campaign finance system."
These findings are from an unprecedented study of political television advertising by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, conducted in conjunction with political scientist Kenneth Gold-stein of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The study is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Using data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group ("CMAG") to monitor political advertising in the nation's top 75 media markets, reaching over 80 percent of the U.S. population, the Brennan Center and Professor Goldstein have been analyzing political advertising in real time throughout the 2000 campaign. Every political ad aired in these media markets is reviewed, quantified and coded along an extensive array of variables.
"Keep in mind, the figures on party spending are conservative," says Professor Kenneth Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "At the campaign's close, when the demand for television air time was greatest, the parties, but not the candidates, were charged premium rates by the broadcast stations.
So the $79.9 million in spending on ads by the RNC and DNC, and the $13 million gap in party spending over candidate spending, likely understate party dominance in the 2000 presidential race. Another factor to consider is that the data used in our study is limited to the nation's 75 largest media markets."
Nationwide, total spending on ads for Bush exceeded spending on ads for Gore by $9 million, $86.1 million to $77.1 million. The Bush team dedicated $10.8 million to winning California's 54 electoral votes, yet they lost the state by 12 percentage points, 54 percent to 42 percent. Al Gore did not spend a single dollar in California on television ads.
"Bush's massive spending in California - only Florida and Pennsylvania received more ad dollars - erased his advertising advantage over Gore in other important states," Professor Goldstein says. "As a result, the Vice President was able to outspend Governor Bush in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington, and in New Mexico, Oregon and Iowa - all states that Bush lost by tiny margins. The second guessing will be muted if Bush becomes president, but political strategists are sure to question that California ad buy."
With their candidate standing just three electoral votes shy of winning the presidency, the Gore camp can revisit numerous strategic decisions, as well. At the top of the list is the Vice President's home state, Tennessee, where Gov. Bush, the RNC and independent groups spent more on television ads ($1.1 million) than did Gore and his supporters ($869,000). Gore was also outspent - and lost - traditionally Democratic West Virginia, and suffered narrow losses in New Hampshire and Nevada. Meanwhile, President Clinton's home state, Arkansas, saw Bush win after roughly equal spending on behalf of the candidates. In Arizona, which Clinton carried in '96 and nearly carried in '92, Bush won after no TV ad spending there. Any one of these states would have made the difference for the Vice President - without tossup Florida.
In Florida, combined Bush campaign and Republican Party ad spending was nearly even with Gore and Democratic spending in the key West Palm Beach, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Orlando media markets. But in the politically conservative markets of (Mobile, AL-)Pensacola and Jacksonville, Bush forces substantially outspent Gore ($820,000-350,000 in Pensacola, $1.1 million-$130,000 in Jacksonville). And in all-important Miami - reaching Miami-Dade and much of Broward counties - Bush and the Republicans spent $6 million to Gore and the Democrats' $3.4 million. Unlike other battleground states, perhaps most noteworthy is that Gore enjoyed nearly no independent TV ad spending on his behalf anywhere in Florida.
Independent groups spent roughly equal amounts on ads for Republican and Democratic candidates in all federal races in the 2000 campaign, but they focused on different contests.
With Citizens for Better Medicare (a pharmaceutical industry group), U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Round-table, and Americans for Job Security (a Sec. 527 group backed by Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott) taking the lead, groups spent $27.5 million on ads for Republican candidates in 2000, with three-quarters of that money - $20.5 million - dedicated to U.S. House races. Led by Planned Parenthood, AFL-CIO, Handgun Control, and Emily's List, independent groups spent $29 million on ads for Democratic candidates, with roughly half that sum - $14 million - spent in the presidential contest.
The disparity in spending by independent groups in the presidential race was striking: $14 million in ads for Gore, compared to $2.1 million in ads for Bush. Group spending accounted for 18 percent of all ads aired for Gore, with one group, Planned Parenthood, paying for almost 10 percent of ads for Gore. In sharp contrast, groups paid for just 2.4 percent of ads for Bush.
"No candidate is safe from a barrage of sham issue ads, or from a tidal wave of party soft money," says Rosenkranz. "From George W. Bush to Rep. Clay Shaw (R-FL), Republican candidates faced the consequences of exponential increases in campaign spending - no different from their Democratic counterparts. Clearly, party affiliation is not a shield. I expect the Republican leadership in this new Congress will finally see the wisdom of reforming the campaign finance system."
In one of its most unexpected findings, the Brennan Center study revealed that the Democratic Party spent $22.7 million on TV ads for House candidates versus only $16.8 million by the Republican Party in House races. Conventional wisdom weighed heavily against such an outcome: historically, the Democratic Party spends less than the Republican Party on TV ads; as the "out" or minority party, Democrats faced stiffer fundraising challenges; and the Democratic Party traditionally spends a larger portion of its campaign war chest on field organizing than does the Republican Party. Nonetheless, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $5.9 million more on TV ads than its Republican counterpart - an edge of more than 25 percent.
Independent groups supporting Republican candidates, led by Citizens for Better Medicare and the Chamber of Commerce, evened the scales in contests for U.S. House seats by spending $20.5 million on TV ads in House races. In sharp contrast, groups spent just $2.1 million on ads for Gov. Bush, only one-tenth of their spending for House candidates.
"It appears that the pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. Chamber didn't need a study to know where their spending could help most," continued Rosenkranz. "Clearly, these groups calculated - and calculated with great precision - how their surrogate advertising dollars could best be used in the battle for control of the House, and they understood that Gov. Bush and the RNC had enough money on hand to outspend the Vice President without them."
The historic closeness in the 2000 federal elections, both in races for the presidency and for control of the Congress, was reflected - or perhaps caused - by remarkable partisan parity in the resources devoted to television advertising in these contests.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law develops and implements a nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms.