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The 2020 election cycle is by far the most expensive campaign year in U.S. history. Advertising spending for candidates running for federal office has reached unprecedented amounts, totaling at least $2.5 billion on TV ads so far. Erika Franklin Fowler, co-founder of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising, joins NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker to discuss the different purposes, priorities and methods for political ads.
The 2020 election cycle is by far the most expensive campaign year in history. Advertising spending on candidates running for federal office across the country has reached unprecedented amounts—totaling at least $2.5 billion so far.
Since January of last year, close to 5 million ads for president, senate and congress have aired on television airwaves alone. That's more than twice the volume of ads in the past two presidential cycles.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker sat down with Erika Franklin Fowler, co-founder of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising, to find out more.
1952 Eisenhower for President Ad: You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike for President…
Political advertisements have come a long way since this 1952 Dwight Eisenhower commercial.
While Eisenhower's campaign was the first to use the television like this, nearly 70 years later, television is still playing a prominent role in campaigns, even as new platforms capture more and more of the public's attention.
Erika Franklin Fowler:
When we got in this tracking 10 years ago, people were already at that point predicting the demise of television. And in every year that we've been tracking– primarily volumes have only gone up.
Erika Franklin Fowler is the co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which began tracking broadcast advertising in federal elections ten years ago, and digital ads two years ago.
This year, Fowler co-authored a study comparing how candidates advertised on TV versus Facebook in the 2018 midterms.
Television ads are really there to persuade. Digital ads have a whole wide variety of different goals. So you'll have ads that are seeking to get citizens to sign up for their mailing list so that they stay informed.
You'll also have ads that are about donating to a particular race. I think digital ads in a lot of ways drive fundraising and can drive more money to spend everywhere, which can include more money on television. And so in some ways, they feed each other in this way.
Since the general election began in April, former Vice President Joe Biden has outspent President Trump on television ads by more than 69 percent.
Collectively, the two campaigns have put more than $360 million towards Facebook and Google ads.
And Fowler says, the 2020 advertisement tsunami is reflective of something else.
Certainly as a society, we have become much more polarized. We've become much more nationalized. The things that we talk about, even when we're talking about local politics, are often much more about national conversations, about health care and other sorts of provision of things than they are necessarily about specific local issues.
Fowler says part of what's driving the increase in ad spending and change in tone are political action groups, or PACs.
America First Action PAC Ad:
Joe Biden is a job-killing, tax-raising disaster.
Priorities USA PAC Ad:
Refusing to prepare…
The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allows outside groups and PACs, like Priorities USA and America First Action, to raise and spend unlimited funds on elections.
This year, Democratic super PACs have dramatically invested in advertising, hitting Donald Trump on healthcare and his record during the pandemic, from Michael Bloomberg's Independence USA.
Independence USA PAC Ad:
If Trump gets his way, over 40 million Floridians with pre-existing conditions could lose their healthcare…
To "Future Forward," a new super PAC backed by a group of Silicon Valley billionaires, including Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Future Forward PAC Ad:
Joe Biden has a plan. He actually has a plan.
The two PACs have poured an astonishing $90 million so far into TV ad spots since April.
Senate Majority PAC Ad:
This Susan Collins voted to make middle-class families pay more…
And it's not just the presidential race, this is happening in down-ballot races as well.
Nearly half of the ads in the Maine senate race have been funded by outside groups, like this one against Republican Senator Susan Collins.
The outside groups and parties tend to play that role of attack dog. Citizens generally don't like negative advertising and if I, as a candidate, go negative against my opponent, that ad might be effective in reducing the favorability of my opponent. But I also tend to suffer some backlash from airing the negativity in the first place.
The negativity is a far departure from Eisenhower's dancing elephants, but a staple of 2020. But does it really make an impact on how we vote?
As a society we tend to oversubscribe the effects of advertising and scholars for a very long time have been saying advertising matters at the margin. If I go further down the ballot and I'm seeing ads for candidates that I don't know very much about, those ads are more likely to actually have an influence.
Outside groups have already spent more than $2.5 billion in political advertising this election. That's nearly twice what was spent in 2016.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
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