Political ad backers remain behind the curtain
Posted September 18, 2014
Updated September 19, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Judy Wilburn isn't running for office, but she's been making regular television appearances many viewers would say are aimed at swaying their vote in the U.S. Senate race.
The veteran teacher appears in a spot by Carolina Rising praising the work of Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican running for U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, saying they get "high marks" on education policy.
Campaign commercial, right?
Political TV ad spending in North Carolina "No," said Dallas Woodhouse, Carolina Rising's president, when asked if the Wilburn ad was aimed at winning votes. "These are educational ads, and they are meant to inform the public. You run them at this time because this is the time people are most focused on the issues."
To Annie Jordan, a certified nurse's assistant from Raleigh, it's a campaign ad.
"It's a total, outright tale," Jordan said after picking out some muscadine grapes at the State Farmer's Market in Raleigh this week.
Jordan said she lumps it in with any number of campaign ads she sees every day – "There's a lot of misinformation," she said – and was incredulous when told that people behind the spot don't consider it a campaign ad at all.
Since the beginning of the year, candidates, party organizations and independent spenders such as Carolina Rising have plowed an estimated $24 million into broadcast television ads that are either explicitly campaign ads or at least mention the name of a candidate, according to data from Kantar Media provided to WRAL News.Given the pace of spending, the fact that most polls show Tillis and Hagan are separated by only a few percentage points, and the importance of North Carolina's Senate seat in overall control of the Senate, spending on broadcast advertising alone likely will top $40 million for 2014 alone. Libertarian contender Sean Haugh has neither the money nor outside backing to figure into those numbers.
While television is the most ubiquitous manifestation of the campaign, it's not always clear who is bankrolling ads that voters like Jordan say have become a regular part of their viewing day. While the candidates slug it out on the stump and in debates, a constellation of allied groups are duking it out on state's airwaves trying push and pull voters to the ballot box with millions of dollars in air time.
Those numbers don't count cable ad buys, radio ads, paid door-to-door canvassing operations, phone banks, direct mail and others resources devoted to mobilizing North Carolina voters. Those who work for campaigns and third-party groups say that, while television advertising consumes the bulk of their money, they spend more time and effort elsewhere.
This chart counts each time a commercial related to the North Carolina U.S. Senate campaign airs on a broadcast television station. The data is provided to WRAL News by Kantar Media Services. Commercials included are those paid for by candidates and political parties, as well as those aired by third-party independent spending groups such as super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations.
Funding sources, agendas not always clear
Both Hagan and Tillis have long decried spending by outside groups allied with their opponents. The volume of the commercials has gotten loud enough that Hagan even referenced them in, of course, her own response ad.
"The next time you see those false attack ads, ask yourself, 'Whose side are they on?'" Hagan says at the end of the spot.
Nearly 60 percent of ads in U.S. Senate campaigns across the county this year came from groups that are not required to disclose their donors, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.
Of the spending in the North Carolina race, nearly $20 million of the $24 million spent from Jan. 1 through Sept. 14 came from groups not directly controlled by a candidate, which means, in many cases, it's hard to know who is backing the messages that show up in your living room. We do know that Republican-leaning organizations took an early lead in spending in late 2013 and early 2014, although Democratic-allied groups pumped up their spending this summer. With less than 50 days to go before the election, groups on both sides have pummeled the airwaves with ads related to the U.S. Senate campaign.
How money flows into elections These campaign spenders are a mix of party-affiliated organizations such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, committees associated with interest groups such as the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood and nonprofits without easily defined links to a particular industry or donor base. Depending on how they are organized, some will disclose both their donors and how they spend their money, while others will make disclosures only during legally set electioneering windows.
Until early September, Carolina Rising was not required to publicly disclose how it was spending its money. That changed on Sept. 6, when the 60-day electioneering communications window before the Nov. 4 general election opened. During that time, groups airing television ads that mention a federal candidate by name must report their spending to the Federal Elections Commission.But there are no rules requiring transparency about where that money comes from.
Woodhouse was happy to say that his group planned to spend $1.3 million airing the spots featuring Wilburn. However, he would not say who donated that money, other than to say, "anybody who will write a check."
Asked why Carolina Rising won't say who is bankrolling the ads, Woodhouse said, "We want to give our donors the ability not to be harassed," pointing to instances when businesses tied to big political donors have been picketed or named during U.S. Senate floor debates.
However, it is clear that Carolina Rising is built to be the upbeat voice of the Republican Party in North Carolina.
Fact Check: Political claims "The citizenry of North Carolina ought to know what their government is doing, not what the liars say about it," Woodhouse said.
But at least some viewers are suspicious.
"People don't put those ads out there just to boost the candidate's self-esteem," said Jennifer Edwards, who works in communications and has helped with legislative campaigns in the past. "Nobody pays that much money just for education."
Asked who she thought might be bankrolling the ads, Edwards named the "Koch brothers," a reference to billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, whom Democrats have pilloried for their investments in conservative politics. While the Kochs have ties to a number of groups, including Woodhouse's former employer, Americans for Prosperity, there is no way to know for sure whether they've bankrolled Carolina Rising. They are connected to others who are spending heavily in the race right now, including Freedom Partners Action Fund, which is running a pair of spots critical of Hagan.
Its upbeat messaging makes Carolina Rising something of an outlier among advertisers in U.S. Senate campaigns, which have seen an increase in the proportion of negative attack ads over the past few election cycles. In North Carolina, two-thirds of all ads that have aired related to the U.S. Senate campaign this year were negative in tone. If ads aired by the candidates themselves are discounted, the mix is even more dour, with 83 percent of all ads aired by non-candidate spenders tagged as "negative" by Kantar Media.
For good-government advocates and researchers such as Michael Franz, associate professor of political science at Bowdoin College and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, that negative tone makes it all the more worrisome that viewers don't know who is trying to influence their opinions.
"I think you ought to know a little bit about the people trying to convince you to vote in a particular way," he said.
Carolina Rising is part of a group of political spenders with nebulous names like Patriot Majority USA, a group that advocates on behalf of Democratic causes funded by unions and wealthy liberal donors, and Concerned Veterans for America, a nonprofit tied to the Koch brothers that backs Republican candidates. Oddly, said Franz, viewers sometimes give groups with those nebulous names and hard-to-track backing more credence than candidates themselves.
"The research suggests that when groups couch their identities in pleasing-sounding names that it enhances people's sense of the group's credibility," Franz said.
The data for this chart is provided to WRAL News by Kantar Media Services. This bar chart shows the ESTIMATED spending in the U.S. Senate race by advertiser on broadcast television commercials. Kantar compiles these estimates based on air time and other information.
Not campaigning by ads alone
Tami Fitzgerald, a North Carolina activist serving as the state director for Women Speak Out, a federally registered "super PAC" that advocates against abortion, isn't trying to win hearts and minds with her work in the state. She's focused on turning out folks who already agree with her group on social issues.
"The people who are already with us are not necessarily people who regularly vote," Fitzgerald said.
Although super PAC has become a somewhat generic term in recent years, it refers to a specific kind of committee that does have to disclose its donors and spending. But in exchange for not coordinating directly with candidates, super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited sums.
Women Speak Out has spent roughly $60,000 on broadcast advertising, according to Kantar, a mere smattering in the overall context of the race."Our main emphasis has been on field operations because we believe that personal contact with voters is going to be more productive than just one more ad on television," Fitzgerald said.
According to FEC data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group, Women Speak Out has reported spending nearly $200,000 on North Carolina's U.S. Senate campaign as of Sept. 17.
Some of the groups spending money on the Senate race in North Carolina are surprising. The National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, headed by longtime North Carolina Republican activist Vernon Robinson, is airing radio ads to bolster Tillis' chances, as well as sell voters on Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon turned GOP darling.
In total, the center has tracked more than $25 million spent on North Carolina's U.S. Senate campaign through Sept. 17, but that is far from a complete number. For example, it does not include millions of dollars spent by Americans for Prosperity, mainly on anti-Hagan ads, virtually all of which are couched as issue ads and have aired outside of the electioneering windows for the May primary or November general election.
All of that leaves the true dollar figure spent on electing North Carolina's U.S. senator as fuzzy as the funding sources behind some of the independent spending groups.
Some groups aren't exactly eager to stand behind their agenda. Center Forward, a nonprofit 501(c)(4) group that says it backs politically centrist candidates, has aired ads on behalf of Hagan but did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment about their involvement in North Carolina.
Control at stake
Planned Parenthood Action Fund, a nonprofit organized by advocates for the health care system and abortion providers, is also structured in such a way that it does not have to publicly disclose its donors. But Melissa Reed, the group's executive director, said the group aimed to raise $1 million in North Carolina while putting more than $3 million worth of advertising and campaign effort into the state on behalf of Hagan.
That means two-thirds of its efforts this year in North Carolina will be funded by donors from out of state.
"Control of the U.S. Senate is really going to come down to three races, and one of those races is in North Carolina," Reed said.
While the donors might be shielded, Planned Parenthood's agenda isn't exactly unknown, which is an advantage, Reed said.
"People are really turned off by politicians, and many folks won't listen to what they have to say, but Planned Parenthood has a really trusted brand," she said.
Although Reed and Fitzgerald are on different sides of the abortion debate and backing different candidates, both agree voter contact is key to winning the election.
So, why bother with television advertising? Planned Parenthood says it will spend $500,000 in the Raleigh media market alone, despite believing they will move more voters to the polls through one-on-one contact."TV is certainly very, very expensive," Reed said, "but it's a way to reach a lot of people very quickly."
It's unlikely that either candidates or their allies will abandon television anytime soon just for that reason.
"It is very difficult to know precisely who the swing voters are," said David Stewart, a professor of marketing for Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "When you don't really know who to target, then you're forced to target everybody."
One unusual way that television ads might help a candidate is not by winning converts or motivating allies but by suppressing turnout for his or her rival. Consumers who are in the market for groceries or a phone or even furniture are unlikely to throw up their hands and not buy anything if they are frustrated by companies' competing claims. But with politicians, voters have the choice to just stay home on Election Day if they lose faith in their first choice.
"If forced to choose, I might pick that candidate. But I'm not really enthusiastic, so I just won't vote," Stewart said.
Even if a candidate or group thought ads had minimal impact, in a tight race, even reaching a few thousand voters who might be on the fence is seen as worthwhile.
"There are still a core group of consistent, reliable voters who still watch television," said Franz of the Wesleyan Media Project.
Those reliable viewers tend to be older than the population at large but also head to the polls in greater numbers than 20-somethings.
Aside from polling, campaign spending is one of the few ways campaigns and interested voters can keep score through Election Day.
"It's partly about not wanting to be outgunned and partly wanting to reach those consistent voters," Franz said.
In the mean time, there's a fair chance that all of those ads are causing voters like Robinson to tune out. Both Franz and Stewart said it is possible for advertising to hit such a saturation point that voters no longer pay attention or push back against it.
"I vote every year," Robinson said as she got ready to leave the farmer's market. That doesn't mean she'll be voting in the U.S. Senate campaign. "I'll just have to trust the majority to sort that out. As far as I'm concerned, this year, neither one of them will get a vote."