The Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) released its latest findings on Feb. 18, revealing how the 2016 presidential candidates have fared in the realm of advertising. Compiling data from all 210 media markets in the United States from Jan. 1, 2015 to this February—with an intense focus on the last two weeks of campaigning by candidates and outside groups—WMP has combed through an immense amount of data in the interest of informing the general public.
“Our primary goal at the Wesleyan Media Project is to take data and make it more publicly available,” said Assistant Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler, the Director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “Because even some of the news organizations who would like this data can’t necessarily afford it. And so we put it out there publicly, as a public good and resource for journalists who want to increase transparency in elections.”
In the so-called Post-Citizens United Era, where ad spending by outside groups such as Super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations far outweighs that of actual campaigns, there has been an increased need for transparency in elections. Fowler noted that ad spending by outside groups can often be more effective with independent voters simply because of the name that is shown at the end of the ad.
“There is a small and growing literature that outside group advertising and especially unknown group advertising works better than candidate advertising,” Fowler said. “So, we know that from a series of experiments where if you show the exact same ad and the only thing you change at the back end is the ‘paid for’ byline, you can demonstrate that the group ads are more effective in moving poll numbers. And that’s for two reasons: One is if you’re airing attacks, and you’re a candidate, you’re going to suffer some penalty or a backlash to you for going negative since citizens don’t like it. So outside groups airing that attack ad will protect you [the candidate] from the backlash that would occur. But the other thing we know is that, and it’s not all that surprising, if you look through the list of group names, that they sound ‘all-American.’ So citizens, even if they don’t know who those groups are, tend to give them more credibility than they give to candidates and parties who they see as more self-interested.”
These groups with the all-American names that Fowler pointed to, such as Right To Rise USA (a pro-Jeb Bush Super PAC), Conservative Solutions PAC (pro-Rubio), Stand For Truth (pro-Cruz), Keep The Promise (pro-Cruz), and New Day For America (pro-Kasich), are often funded by anonymous donors. These are done through a loophole that was created after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision; this allowed money spent on campaign advertising (previously limited under the McCain-Feingold bill) to be protected by the Court as free speech under the First Amendment, and thus made unlimited if used by outside groups. This loophole allows donors to 501(c)(4) organizations to remain anonymous. These donations can then be transferred to Super PACs like the ones listed above, and can account for thousands of airings, such as 12,480 this year by Right To Rise USA, according to the Wesleyan Media Project’s latest findings.
For every data point that The Wesleyan Media Project puts into a table or into prose in its findings, there is a student researcher who watched the ad and coded it so it could be used in a variety of different ways by The Wesleyan Media Project. Overseen by Project Manager Laura Baum, these students help Fowler by doing the time-consuming work of watching each ad in its entirety and analyzing it for different traits, such as whether it is an attack ad, which buzz words it uses, and if an American flag is present.
“I help manage our team of student coders that we have,” Baum said. “At any given time during our ad work, we might have as many as twelve Wesleyan students that we employ. We also employ a few students at Washington State University and Bowdoin College, and they literally watch every single ad for gubernatorial elections, U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and for President. So [for] any ad that has been out there, at least one of our students…will code it on a variety of different things. Is it an attack ad? Is it a positive ad? Is there an American flag featured?”
Because the WMP’s research relies on fallible human beings, it is Baum’s job to make sure that there is little to no variance between coders on how they perceive certain traits of each ad, a term she refers to as “Interceder reliability.”
“One of the things we talk about with our student coders is that we really want them to be interchangeable,” Baum said. “So if you code an ad and I code an ad, our responses should be exactly the same. You’re not trying to find a creative way to assess a particular ad. We basically want everyone to follow this very strict set of guidelines.”
Although the groundwork of WMP may initially sound antithetical to the liberal arts education that the University provides, students like Ad Coding Supervisor Courtney Laermer ’17 thoroughly enjoy the work and have even moved beyond it to higher levels of analysis within WMP and Fowler’s classes.
“I have been involved in the Wesleyan Media Project since the spring of my freshman year and I absolutely love it,” Laermer said. “Specifically, I have done work surrounding the Affordable Care Act and the media coverage associate with the fall 2014 rollout of the ACA’s medical insurance marketplace. This year, I’m one of the Ad Coding Supervisors, so I have the opportunity to train new research assistants in coding the videos. I have learned so much from WMP about, not only healthcare, but how to truly analyze new clips and advertisements to make sure you are getting the most out of it.”
As for the WMP’s most recent findings, much of the focus centers around attack ad spending aimed at Senator Marco Rubio in the Republican race and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. In fact, Rubio’s campaign is even spending money attacking Clinton. Going into the primaries in South Carolina and Nevada, this increase in spending leads one to believe that despite not yet winning a state in the primary, Rubio is looking towards the general election, and both he and Clinton are seen as frontrunners worthy of expensive attack ads.
Similar to its past findings, WMP has also noted that Super PACs continue to dominate advertising, with Right To Rise having spent an estimated $58 million already on ads supporting former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Although Super PACs can take so-called “dark money” from anonymous 501(c)(4) donors, The WMP reports that there is only one true “dark money” group in the race, which is Conservative Solutions Project, a 501(c)(4) that supports Marco Rubio.
Although the race in both parties has seen a high level of ad spending, the nature of the ads is much different across party lines. On the Democratic side, 99.6 percent of the ads have been positive, whereas in only 67.5 percent of Republican campaign ads have been positive. Outside groups supporting Republicans have only aired 26.3 percent positive ads, with the rest being either negative or contrast ads.
Another question the WMP wrestles with is why campaigns spend so much on advertising in the first place, especially when ads don’t always work. The best example of this paradox would be Jeb Bush, who has spent the most on advertising so far this campaign. With the help of outside groups, Bush has amassed an estimated $61.9 million worth of positive advertisements, yet he has only gone down in the polls and may well drop out if he does not have a strong showing South Carolina, where he is currently sitting in fourth place behind Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.
“Advertising matters at the margins,” Fowler said. “It may matter a lot in a primary where particular candidates are unknown, but it’s never gonna take a candidate who is otherwise not popular over a finish line. So it doesn’t matter how often, for example, Jeb Bush is on the air, if people don’t like his message or are sick of the Bush name, advertising is not going to take him over the finish line.”
With 48 more states to come in the primary and then a general election after that, the WMP faces many more late nights of coding and analyzing ads. However, despite the enormous amount of work and even tediousness of making sense of political advertisements, their hope is that American elections will be more transparent and more useful to citizens because of the work of the WMP, and that maybe, one day, campaigns and outside groups will save us all the trouble of watching failing ads for failing candidates once they look at the research.