A recent study co-authored by the Wesleyan Media Project and Center for Responsive Politics (WMP/CRP), found that around 2.4 million political ads have aired this election cycle at a total cost of $1.56 billion.
A major portion of this ad spending comes from super PACs that are allowed to legally raise and spend unlimited sums of money advocating for or against a certain candidate. According to the report, in the 2016 election cycle super PACs accounted for nearly 72% of group-sponsored advertising.
Political spending has increased steadily through U.S. election history. But the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision of 2010 intensified the flow of money to campaigns at the national and regional level. As a result of Citizens United, the federal government can no longer restrict non-profit groups' spending on political causes. The court's decision applied to for-profit entities such as corporations, as well.
Critics of the ruling say that it has given well-funded organizations and individuals undue influence over results, and often without revealing themselves.
Super PACs have to reveal their donor list. But dark money groups do not have to disclose the source of funds for political ads. Dark money groups are non-profits that may receive money from companies, unions and other trade groups.
Here are three important findings about ad spending by outside groups:
1. Outside spending has focused more on senate races than others.
Outside groups are responsible for the bulk of ads "that mention or picture the candidates on the ballot" in the Senate races and some competitive House races.
According to the WMP/CRP report, while Democrats sponsor their own advertisements, Republicans rely mostly on outside groups for advertising expenditure. All top five ad- spenders in the Senate races belonged to outside groups, either to super PACs or dark money groups.
Super PACS like Senate Majority PAC, Women Vote, and Freedom Partners have had to publicly disclose their donor list. But dark money groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and One Nation have not had to do so.
2. Many groups air ads outside of the FEC reporting window, allowing non-disclosure of donors.
A large portion of ad aired by outside groups occurs outside the reporting window. The disclosure window is the time period when groups must report specific election-related advertising activity to the FEC.
According to the report, in 2016, super PACS like the Republican leaning Rights to Rise USA and Democratic leaning Senate Majority PAC have run more than 50% of their ads outside the FEC reporting window. Priorities USA Action, which favors Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, has run 100% of its total ads in the presidential race outside the FEC reporting window.
Since 2010, the conservative American Crossroads group has run more than 200,000 ads in federal elections and even funded many dark money groups, according to the report. More than half of them go unreported, simply because they run outside the FEC window.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and One Nation have respectively aired 81% and 99% of the ads outside the FEC window in 2016, according to the report.
3. Online issue ads by dark money groups are murkier since a large portion of them are unregulated and difficult to track.
Not all ads must be reported to the FEC and disclosure depends on the type of ads. Online ads are more unregulated compared to TV advertisements, which are easier to track.
Under the FEC, online campaign ads are "communications placed for a fee on another person's website." They can only be tracked on those campaign finance reports.
In the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case, the Court created two broad categories of political advertising: express and issue advocacy. Express advocacy ads explicitly recommend election or defeat of a candidate and are subjected to disclosure regulations. Under current laws of campaign finance, hard money (money raised within the contribution limits by the parties) must be used for express advocacy ads and words like "vote for," "vote against," "support" and "defeat" are often used in such ads to clearly identify the advocacy for or against a candidate.
By contrast, issue ads do not "explicitly advocate for or against" a candidate and become more complex if they are online. A larger debate of dark money spending happens around online issue ads that appear on social platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter and sometimes go viral. At a low cost, online ad spending can reach a wider audience without revealing the person behind it. When issue advocacy ads are aired online they are not only anonymous and unregulated but also remain the 'Internet Blind Spot'.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.