Presidential ad spending floods NC

Posted August 8, 2012
Updated August 9, 2012

— North Carolina's status as a presidential campaign swing state has brought with it a deluge of television advertising that most Tar Heel voters have never experienced. 

A review of public files from the Triangle's four largest television stations – WRAL, FOX 50, WTVD and NBC17 – shows presidential candidates and their allies spent $5.4 million in the Raleigh-Durham market this June and July. 

Although estimates vary, estimates from outlets such as National Journal and the Washington Post peg statewide television ad spending on the presidential campaign in North Carolina this year at roughly $31 million, with more on the way.

Experts estimate 2012 will be the most expensive national election ever, once spending on the presidential race and Congressional contests are taken into account.

"I think it's fair to say that a majority of those ads are meant to define the opponent in a negative way," said Jonathan Kappler, who tracks political activity for the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit that analyzes how politics affects the state’s business environment.

He has tracked 53 different advertisements related to the political campaign since late 2011. Those ads have stepped up in both frequency and variety this summer, marking a change from four years ago. 

In 2008, Kappler said, the Democratic presidential primary roared into North Carolina as then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled for the nomination. After that race was over, he said, North Carolina still received visits from candidates and their surrogates, but advertising spending hit a lull.

"This year is very different," Kappler said. Both campaigns have kept up a steady stream of spending throughout the summer, both on broadcast and cable channels. According to WRAL-TV's research, broadcast advertising in the Triangle area during June and July breaks down as follows:

  • Mitt Romney / RNC: $1.5 million
  • Barack Obama / DNC: $2.1 million
  • Outside groups: $1.5 million

That totals to about $5.4 million in spending during summer months that have traditionally provided a respite from intense political campaigning in North Carolina. 

"It doesn't feel unusual to me," said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that helps track spending on political campaigns at all levels. 

North Carolina voters, he said, are being hit with the same ad deluge that voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania have seen for several presidential cycles. 

There are between nine and 11 states that are the keys to victory for President Obama and presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney this fall, depending on which assessment of ad spending is examined. 

North Carolina is in the mix with Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida. Wisconsin and Minnesota are also getting attention from some conservative groups. 

Although campaigns spend money on staff, direct mail, Internet presence, travel and dozens of other items, television spending tends to be one of the biggest line items in a national campaign and the one that voters most often notice. 

That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Brent Laurenz, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a group that lobbies for greater transparency in campaigns and civic involvement by voters.

Television commercials can help educate voters, he said.

"But too often what we see are these negative attack ads that are on shaky ground with the facts," Laurenz said. That's true, he said, of Republicans, Democrats and the campaigns themselves as well as outside groups. 

"I think one important difference (between 2012 and 2008) is that with these outside groups a very small number of individual people can be so financially involved in the process," Biersack said.

Recent court decisions have cleared the way for outside groups – those not directly affiliated with a candidate or political party – to spend more than ever on television ads. Those group are often funded by a few very wealthy donors. 

Americans For Prosperity, for example, recently announced it would spend $27 million to urge voters to oppose Obama. That group is largely funded by a pair of brothers who made billions of dollars from their energy company. But gaps in disclosure requirements can make it unclear exactly how much AFP has raised or is spending. 

In the Triangle this summer, more than a quarter of all political ad spending has come from groups not directly controlled by candidates or political parties.

"We don't get a full picture of what's going on, particularly with some of these outside groups that come in and do advertising," Laurenz said.

A complex web of federal laws and regulations govern spending on political ads and where and when that spending must be reported. The most current information comes from companies that use technology to track when and where ads air, and that typically charge a great deal for that information.

It's not always clear what the money spent on political ads is buying.

Biersack said there are very few truly undecided voters. All of this spending, he said, is aimed at influencing them, wherever they may be and whatever they may be watching.

Steve Green, a political scientist with N.C. State University, said researchers aren't entirely clear on which campaign ads work or why.

"What's the difference in seeing a Romney commercial every six minutes and an Obama commercial every nine minutes? I don't think we know," he said. What's clear, though, is that both sides aren't taking any chances with not being on television.

If orders already placed with television stations are any indication, those knowledgeable about campaigns said voters should expect to see even more political ads this fall, both from presidential campaigns and those running for offices lower down the ballot.


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  • nighttrain2010 Aug 9, 2012

    This is hardly new, or did we not pay attention in history class to the Roman Empire? - Worland

    Well considering we're devaluing our currency much faster than the Roman Empire, I'd say the average voter and the politicians not only didn't pay attention, they don't care.

    If we're going to have these silly contests called elections that don't do a single thing (as the two parties are exactly the same no matter how much their cheerleaders want others to believe otherwise), we should lump all the votes for Republicans and Democrats into one pile and all the other votes in another pile. Then choose leadership from the pile that isn't a vote cast for a Republican or Democrat and given that person little to no real power.

    At least it would be something different than the past 100 years of useless status quo of wasting taxpayer funds on government programs foreign and domestic that don't work nor will ever work.

  • InformedPatriot Aug 9, 2012

    "Why can't Obama run on his accomplishments of his first term" @MadMaxx

    That's a standard argument that supporters of the challenger have, isn't it. It's the same arguments Kerry supporters used against Bush in 2004. The problem with that argument in this case is that Obama has high personal favorability ratings -- that is to say, the average voter "likes" him.

    Since Romney can't talk about RomneyCare (because that's "socialized medicine" and his own party won't stand for it), and he can't talk about the Olympics (because there was a big-time problem with over-spending and his party won't stand for that), then Romney can't really talk about anything. So you've got an incumbent (Obama) who has a high likability factor and a challenger (Romney) who has a low likability factor going head to head. Obama supporters have lots of accomplishments they point to, but they really don't have to, because Romney is just not a good candidate for this race.

  • smegma Aug 9, 2012

    i'm voting for 'I Like Turtles' in november

  • vickiewashington Aug 9, 2012

    today will be a 'walk back' day for the romney campaign. You can almost hear them now. She was taken out of context by the main stream media...of course she was on faux news at the time, so that might be hard for them, but no never mind it will be a small hurdle for them to lie over.
    Its all Obama's fault for ma. having universal health care like the Obama ACA.
    romney did not know that spokesperson was speaking for the campaign.
    who said what...I'll get back to you on that.
    what campaign spokesperson?

    NO, you can not see my tax returns, 'you people' are not entitled to them.
    thank you for your interest.

  • MadMaxx Aug 9, 2012

    Why can't Obama run on his accomplishments of his first term......................(crickets)........................

  • BubbaDukeforPresident Aug 9, 2012

    Anyone who bases their vote on 'information' they received by campaign ads shouldn't be allowed to vote.

    I just wish Romney would call Obama on all these made-up claims by people like Harry Reid. First of all, Romney doesn't have to show his tax returns. Harry Reid knows that. Harry Reid also knows that if Romney hadn't paid taxes in the last ten years that the IRS would have been all over Romney before now. Harry Reid also knows that Romney does nothing different than any American citizen - pay the least amount of taxes possible. That's not illegal or unethical - it's your money.

    I wish that Romney would take Glenn Beck's advice and go to his bedroom, open his chest of drawers where he left his cohones, strap them on, and tell Obama that when he produces all those records that he's kept locked away, maybe he will show more of his tax records...as if 500 pages from the last three years isn't enough. Romney is a wus, Obama is evil. Choose the less evil.

  • Offshore Aug 9, 2012

    How about they keep their ads and send the money to the teachers... fire fighters... law enforcement.

  • Crabbit Cratur Aug 9, 2012

    "The parties want to focus on the states that will keep their party winning rather than having a national goal."

    You want to be ruled all the time by what CA and NY think......that would become the "National Goal"...simply by force of numbers......

  • Crabbit Cratur Aug 9, 2012

    "Tayled-you forgot to add the corrupt labor unions that will do ANYTHING to get Obama re-elected. "

    Really? please show this to be the case......first that they are corrupt (in a relevant way to the election as I have no doubt that some union people are corrupt just as some Corp CEOs are) and secondly that they will do anything to get him re-elected......details please....you know, links, that sort of thing other wise we might just think you just made it all up....

  • cwood3 Aug 9, 2012

    Tayled-you forgot to add the corrupt labor unions that will do ANYTHING to get Obama re-elected.

    When Delphi-the parts division of GM was bankrupted, the unions got their pensions and the white colors did not-thank you Treasury! Obama and Co. made the union folks whole-not management!! How is that fair??

    Problem with this and many close elections is that many elections laws are broken! So-it's ok to brake the law as long as you win??? How great is that ???

    I will ruin my mute button this fall-be assured!!