Wesleyan Media Project Finds Increase in Super PAC Spending
In an analysis of 2012 election coverage, the Wesleyan Media Project discovered that while the overall number of campaign ads has remained relatively stable since the 2008 primaries, the number of interest groups paying for them has increased dramatically. The number of candidate-sponsored ads has dropped from 97 percent of the total in 2008 to 56 percent this year. The Wesleyan Media Project was founded in 2010 to make such data about campaign advertisements available to the voting public.
Assistant Professor of Government Erika Fowler, one of the directors of the project, spoke of the increasing role of independent fundraising committees called “Super PACS” in total campaign spending.
“Super PACs in particular have gone from sponsoring three percent of the total ads that were aired in 2008 to nearly half—44 percent—this cycle,” Fowler said.
Fowler said that the tone and content of ads in the 2012 election cycle might be very different from the content of ads from the 2008 presidential election due to shifts in the sources of funding.
“We know that candidates do sponsor negative ads, but parties and especially interest-group ads tend to air many more negative attacks than they do positive advertising,” Fowler said. “It’s very likely, and not surprising, that we will see an increase in negativity.”
Fowler also said that the competitive nature of the election may have an impact on the number of ads as well as total spending.
“It’s an incredibly competitive election cycle, and there’s a lot more at stake this year with the White House,” Fowler said. “Even though we haven’t seen it happen yet, we definitely expect the advertising volume to increase, both in terms of the amount spent and also in the volume of ads that you see on the airwaves.”
The Wesleyan Media Project is a continuation of the Wisconsin Advertising Project, supervised by Professor Ken Goldstein, which tracked political advertising from 1998 to 2008. The Wesleyan Media Project is co-directed by Fowler from Wesleyan, Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz from Bowdoin College, and Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs Travis Rideout from Washington State University, who all became involved in the project as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin.
Fowler, Franz, and Ridout received funding from the Sunlight Foundation and the Knight Foundation after the project’s launch on September 27, 2010, which allowed them to purchase data and pay student coders.
“By that point there were only five weeks left to go in the general election of 2010, but between that date and election day, we put out a total of eight press releases and got around 400 total articles in over 100 different media outlets, including most of the major networks in the country,” Fowler said.
The press releases contained in-depth analysis of data the professors had purchased from Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), a commercial firm with tracking devices in each of the 210 media markets in the United States. In the initial phases of an electoral cycle, CMAG sends Fowler two sets of real-time information. The first is a frequency database, which tells exactly when and where ads aired, including the date, station, television show, market, and time of each airing.
“That database is massive,” Fowler said. “In 2010, the database of just gubernatorial and federal elections airings included 2.8 million records.”
The second set of data includes information about the ad’s content.
“It used to the be the case that we would only get storyboards, which are screen shots of every few seconds of the ads along with transcripts,” Fowler said. “But technology’s evolved such that now we’re actually getting the full video file, which is much better for analysis purposes on our end.”
These video files are uploaded to an online database where they are coded for various characteristics, including tone, music, emotional appeals, issues, and national politicians that are mentioned either in a favorable or unfavorable light. Once Fowler and her colleagues have sufficiently analyzed the data, they are ready to release their findings to the public.
“We work on a couple of different platforms,” Fowler said. “We typically deal with a standard press release that we post to our website. Wesleyan’s Director of Media Relations then distributes the release to national media organizations and we put it out through Twitter. People can also subscribe to us directly."
In addition to increasing transparency in elections, the Wesleyan Media Project is also intended to create a definitive database that will be useful to at least three separate audiences: the public, scholars who are interested in studying campaigns and campaign targeting, and policy-makers or practitioners who might be interested in reforming the campaign process.
After the election, Fowler will host a meeting at Wesleyan during which she and her colleagues will present the results of their tracking for the past year.
“We’ll also invite national media representatives—someone from Politico, National Public Radio, and other reporters—to discuss the election cycle and its implications,” she said.
Fowler, Franz, and Ridout hire college students at the three campuses to help with the research. Matthew Motta ’13 joined Wesleyan Media Project when it first began.
“I was initially drawn to the project because of its applicability to current events,” Motta said. “In my opinion, political advertisements are tremendously influential on most electoral processes in the United States. Working for a project that actively improves America’s understanding of a critical component of our political life is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”